TJ Rodgers was already six years and three properties into his winemaking hobby when he began designing the hillside structure that would eventually become a state-of-the-art production facility for his Pinot Noir label, Clos de la Tech. By the time he finished the design three years later, it’s safe to say the venture was no longer a hobby.
The Santa Cruz Mountains winemaker has been a force of innovation since he launched Cypress Semiconductor in 1982; still, he refers to building the winery as “the biggest project I’ve ever undertaken.”
Along the way, Rodgers has drawn upon his engineering background to develop equipment that combines time-saving technology with time-honored winemaking traditions. Some of these designs have patents pending with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and others are currently in use at the University of California, Davis, teaching winery.
Foot crushing: A modern twist on an old recipe
As with gravity-flow winemaking and natural fermentation, TJ Rodgers adheres to traditional methods when it comes to crushing grapes for his brand Clos de la Tech, and this includes foot crushing.
“Over the years I started to understand there is a genius to it,” Rodgers tells Wines & Vines of how he adopted the process for his first vintage. “When you do foot crushing, you never crush all the grapes…and the result is the (bitter) tannin gets left behind in the seeds.”
An idea with staying power
More than 15 years later, Clos de la Tech co-owner Valeta Rodgers still dons rubber boots and a wetsuit every fall and spends weeks stomping Pinot Noir during crush and cold soak.
“When Valeta’s foot crushing, I watch the color and tannins build up in the wine,” winemaker TJ Rodgers says. “Over the years we’ve gotten a profile of how much color should be in the wine on day two, day three, etc.” A full week can yield full tannin extraction.
A bike with legs
As more vineyard blocks reach full maturity, and production at Clos de la Tech increases, the number of tanks requiring foot crushing grows accordingly, and the volume of footwork is starting to resemble a marathon.
“This year I’m making a set of prosthetic limbs, fake legs, something like a bicycle,” Rodgers says. “And you’ll be able to lower it down on a machine and be able to do foot crushing without having Valeta be in the tanks all the time.”
Rodgers hopes to have the contraption ready for use this year or next. “It’s kind of turning winemaking around, saying: I want a modern view of making wine, but I want to make it the old-fashioned way.”
Rodgers planted his first vineyard, a 1-acre hobby site at his home in Woodside, Calif., in 1994, dubbing it Domaine du Docteur Rodgers. Within a few years his friends’ and colleagues’ demand for the wine outpaced the 100 cases his small vineyard could produce, so he purchased a second property: a 4-acre parcel at 2,350 feet elevation, and planted it to Pinot Noir. The vineyard, Domaine Valeta, is named after TJ’s wife, Clos de la Tech co-owner and assistant winemaker Valeta Rodgers.
Finally, in 2000, the couple purchased a 163-acre property and named it Domaine Lois Louise, after TJ’s mother. The three vineyards are located directly west of Silicon Valley, all within about 20 miles of each other, with Domaine du Docteur Rodgers the farthest north and Domaine Valeta the farthest south and facing the ?San Francisco Bay (see map at right).
Two vineyard blocks at Domaine Lois Louise are harvested separately to create vineyard designate wines: Cote Sud and Twisty Ridge. Eventually Rodgers wants ?to have 80 acres of the site under vine. Domaine Lois Louise produced its first vintage in 2004, but Rodgers says candidly, “2006 was the first vintage that looked good; 2008 was the first that tasted good.”
Clos de la Tech’s wines are all Pinot Noir. Domaine Lois Louise is planted with phylloxera-resistant French rootstocks grafted to seven different Pinot Noir clones certified by the French agency ENTAV-INRA.
Unlike Domaine du Docteur Rodgers, where it is a challenge to keep sugars in check, “This vineyard is right on the edge for producing ripe grapes—even for Pinot Noir,” Rodgers tells Wines & Vines of Domaine Lois Louise, where it is not uncommon for the valley area to be shrouded in fog from the Pacific Ocean until 11 a.m. “The slope on the top vineyard (Twisty Ridge) gets maximum ?sun all day long, and it needs it.”
Rodgers says the planting density at Domaine Lois Louise is about 2,500 vines per acre, and a relief valve is installed every 50 feet of the irrigation system ?to control pressure buildup. A weather monitor created by Adcon delivers information to the Rodgers’ home ?in Woodside.
Between the vineyard climate, planting choices and farming practices (Rodgers calls for cluster thinning when yields approach the 2 tons per acre mark), Domaine ?Lois Louise produces just 1 ton of fruit ?per acre, resulting in what Rodgers calls “an intensely concentrated wine.”
Sustainable, organic and Biodynamic
With the Rodgers’ backgrounds in the high-tech sector (Valeta was a senior SRAM design engineer before taking over day-to-day operations at the winery), Clos de la Tech seems an unlikely candidate for vineyard practices that some would consider the domain of Northern California hippies. But Valeta Rodgers tells Wines & Vines she has been leading an experiment in Biodynamic growing for the past five years.
“We do the whole thing, we do the moon calendar,” she says, “and we’ve seen no difference at all.” In fact, Rodgers adds that in order to see the results from a product approved for Biodynamic use, she has to use a lot more of it than a product deemed fit for sustainable vineyards.
A foray into customization
Standing atop the ridge that overlooks Domaine Lois Louis e, farming and harvesting the steep, closely spaced rows below appears daunting if not impossible.
There is a 966-foot climb in elevation at the site, combined with a side slope of around 25°. Nano tractors can be unstable at such steep inclines, causing them to tip over, TJ Rodgers says. He worked with Clemens GmbH to design a multi-row tractor that would fit the narrow rows at Domaine Lois Louise. The result functions like a cable car: At the top of the vineyard the tractor is hooked to cables that pull it up and down the rows as well as around corners. A driver sits on top and controls the machine using a joystick.
When TJ Rodgers first started making wine, he crushed and stored his wine at Woodside Vineyards in nearby Menlo Park, Calif. But after purchasing Domaine Lois Louise, he knew that trucking grapes to a flatlands winery would be awkward and expensive. For three years, Rodgers spent three hours every Saturday and Sunday designing the winery. He solicited the advice of architects and professors, contractors and even a 1950s textbook written in Russian. In the end, he got what he wanted: a gravity-flow winery with three separate caves: one for crush and fermentation, another for barrel aging and a third for bottling and case storage.
The winemaker calculated the width of the first tunnel by determining the space necessary to accommodate two fermentors side by side. Much of the floor area goes unused now (production currently stands at 2,000 cases per year), but Rodgers designed the space to accommodate up to 10,000 cases per year.
A train brought steel ribs for the cave from North Carolina to California, and during construction, a cement plant was set up in front of the caves. “When you cut that wall,” Rodgers says, “you want to put concrete on it almost immediately—like within 10 minutes.”
Rodgers says that on paper building a cave is cheaper than a standalone building. In reality it proved more expensive, but he is pleased with the outcome. A wine lab and an 1,800-square-foot apartment are built into the cave above the barrel-storage area.
Sorting and natural fermentations
Clos de la Tech uses whole clusters for Pinot Noir fermentation, but the hand-sorting process is rigorous nonetheless. “The sort is two times more labor intensive than the pick,” Rodgers says, explaining that all the leaves must come out.
Additionally, the winemaker adheres to 100% native fermentation. Yeast strains are a part of the vineyard ecosystem, he says. “If you want to express terroir, you have to use native yeasts.
“I haven’t had a bad fermentation since 1998; 15 years straight, 40 fermentations ?a year, without a bad fermentation with native yeast.”
Early on Rodgers purchased tanks from traditional wine industry vendors, but eventually he designed his own 54-inch-diameter model and had it fabricated by T&C Stainless of Mt. Vernon, Mo.
Two sets of pipes line either side of the cave, which is equipped with 56 utility stations: One pipe delivers cool water to ?the jacketed stainless steel tanks used during day cold soaks; the other conveys warm water for heating the grapes back up. Each station also provides compressed air, argon/nitrogen and electricity, with ?the electricity serving to regulate tank temperature.
Frustrated by the amount of time necessary to press wine, Rodgers set about customizing a solution. He collaborated with Therma Corp. of San Jose, Calif., to design a custom piece of equipment that presses wine right in the fermentation tank. Rodgers likens the design to a French coffee press in reverse: ?The press is rolled over to the fermentor, the plate is fixed in place, and the tank rises up to meet it.
The press can be set from 0.1 to 3 bars, and what previously took four hours to accomplish can be finished in 25 minutes, ?Rodgers says. Better yet, he has found the press wine to be less ?bitter than traditionally pressed wine. “It wasn’t that different from the free-run wine, so the press wine was of a higher quality than if you beat it up the old-fashioned way,” he says.
And because the floor is set 80 inches lower in the barrel cave next door, wine from the press flows through sterile hoses directly into barrels in the adjacent cave without the use of a pump.
“We don’t own a filter, and we don’t own ?a pump,” Rodgers tells Wines & Vines. “The winery is meant to be a gravity winery, and we’re true to it by not having any pumps. ?Wine flows from tank to barrels to bottling.”
Barrel and bottle aging
Barrels are treated with ozone gas once per month before filling. Each stainless fermentor fills four barrels. Wines are barrel aged for 18 months in François Frères barrels, and Rodgers is partial to those from France’s Bertrange ?forest. Early vintages were aged in 100% new oak, but the winemaker now uses 70%.
In keeping with the gravity-flow tradition, Clos de la Tech’s third cave is set 22 feet below the second. There is a blending tank on the second floor so that wine can flow down to bottling.
The Pinot Noir is aged in bottles for two years or more. Rodgers describes his wines as being “very tight in their youth. They don’t open up for six to eight years.”
Packaging and wine sales
Bottles of Clos de la Tech are emblazoned with a dab of red sealing wax on the front, but instead of being stamped with initials or a design, the wax is used to hold a silicon chip. According to Rodgers, engineering teams at Cypress work all year to create the chip featured on that year’s wine.
Ninety-nine percent of Clos de la Tech’s production is sold direct to consumer, although bottles are available at a handful of nearby restaurants and Roberts Market in Woodside.
In 2010 the Rodgers opened the Half Moon Bay Cheese Co., which serves mostly local products as well as some international wines. The shop, located in the surf city’s downtown area, doubles as a tasting room for Clos de la Tech, which is not accessible to visitors due to its mountaintop location. The tasting bar has 60 wines available for tasting each day, including Clos de la Tech Pinot Noir. Purchased on-site or directly from closdelatech.com, the wines sell for between $42 and $ 102 per bottle.
As for TJ Rodgers’ winemaking hobby, he’s replaced it with a goal. “Once you get to eight figures it’s no longer a hobby,” Rodgers says earnestly. These days the winemaker boils down his ambition succinctly: to make the best Pinot Noir in the New World. And who knows? He’s certainly got the right tools.