The paint is hardly dry at Continuum Estate winery, the latest chapter in the continuing saga of the Mondavi winemaking family.
The new Napa Valley facility built by siblings Tim Mondavi and Marcia Mondavi Borger maintains a thread that goes back through their father’s Robert Mondavi Winery, founded in 1966, to Charles Krug Winery, owned by their grandparents Cesare and Rosa, before that to grape and wine businesses in Lodi and Fresno, Calif., and eventually back to La Marche, Italy. Tim and Marcia started the Continuum business in 2005 using proceeds from the sale of the Robert Mondavi Winery to Constellation Brands. They made wine with grapes from the Mondavi To Kalon Vineyard in leased space until this year.
With all that tradition and 40 harvests behind him, it’s not surprising that Tim had strong ideas about the striking new winery, which combines traditional concepts (some newly rediscovered like large oak and concrete fermentation vats and a basket press) with the latest in technology for monitoring and control. Perhaps even more significantly, the Continuum winery also implements advanced ideas in sustainable winemaking just now being researched and perfected at the University of California, Davis, by professor Roger Boulton, department head David Block and many others.
Visitors hardly notice the winery surrounded by vineyards having southern and western exposures when they first arrive on the crest of Pritchard Hill overlooking Napa Valley. “We’re sitting on top of the world,” Tim Mondavi told Wines & Vines.
Conditions vary widely on the mountain site, however. The 62 acres of vines on the 173-acre property are divided into 37 blocks. The vines are 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Cabernet Franc (a high percentage for Napa Valley but reflecting the historical plantings in Bordeaux), 15% Petit Verdot and only 5% Merlot.
The winery harvested only 1.85 tons per acre last year, though some of the vines are young. Other land lies fallow or in rootstock.
The winery isn’t large, being built to optimize the grapes harvested on-site. Production was 2,700 cases in 2012. “The winery is all about the vineyard,” said Mondavi, adding that the winery site was chosen to have minimal impact on the vines.
The attractive building was designed by veteran winery architect Howard Backen. It nestles into a hill that provides one wall as well as a target for a future wine-aging cave. It is finished in earth tones with olive and Manzanita trees framing the entrance.
Visitors pass through massive doors and enter a high-ceilinged gallery with halls filled with fermentation tanks on either side and two more down the hall.
A forest of tanks
Eventually, the winery will boast one tank per vineyard block, but not all of the vines are producing, and for now the winery is using some older tanks brought from previous winemaking projects and quarter-ton bins to ferment some of the blocks.
The number of tanks allows winemaker Kurt Niznik and assistant winemaker Carrie Findleton, working under Mondavi’s guidance, to optimize each lot. The best lots are eventually blended to create the $175 signature wine, Continuum, though they do produce a second label, Novicium, which costs $88 per bottle. “Clarity of focus creates the best wine,” Mondavi said.
All of the fermentation tanks are either made of oak (75%) or concrete (25%) in the shape of truncated cones. The only stainless steel tanks are used for rack and return processing to get the wine off seeds and other unwanted deposits, and for blending.
Mondavi’s use of the approximately 4-ton oak tanks are reminiscent of the much larger tanks that frame the To Kalon fermentation room at Robert Mondavi Winery, once owned by his family, and Tim readily admits that he was inspired to install the smaller versions based on that experience.
Continuity is a constant thread in the winery. Continuum employs 22 people full time, and a few of them worked for many years at Robert Mondavi Winery (some starting in 1981), while others worked in the vineyards planted on the Continuum site by its former owners starting in 1996.
The concrete tanks from Sonoma Cast Stone are of similar size and shape to the oak tanks from Taransaud, which also made the tanks at Robert Mondavi Winery.
The tanks are of different sizes to match individual blocks of grapes, and they all include cooling coils—those in the concrete tanks being embedded in the walls while those in the oak tanks attach to the interior walls. The refrigeration system is from Refrigeration Technology.
The vessels each have temperature sensors at four levels, and the conditions are monitored via computer systems that winemakers can access remotely. They can also remotely control pump overs and cooling or heating. Permanent pipes allow purging with carbon dioxide, argon or nitrogen (the latter generated on-site).
The tanks have large openings in the tops for cleaning, but they’re sealed during fermentation. Older cube-shaped and cylindrical oak tanks generally lie out of sight in the back halls; they will eventually be replaced.
The winemaking process
After careful field selection that removes unwanted grapes, stems and leaves, the optimum clusters and berries are sorted by hand before and after de?stemming. After light crushing to crack the berries, they flow by gravity into tanks for fermentation.
Mondavi has fermented in barrels in the past, but this year the tannins were strong enough that he felt that was unneeded. In general, he’s backing away from the laborious process in favor of utilizing the larger wood tanks.
From pre- to post-soaking, including fermentation, the wine has a total maceration time of up to 35 days. During this time, the wines are pumped over daily. Each tank has its own Graco air-operated pump with permanent piping. Air pumps use no electricity and operate at a specified pressure the winery controls. “Both of these things give us peace of mind when the pumps are operating unsupervised, i.e. no shortages to worry about, no pumps losing prime, no hoses exploding, no pumps breaking, no seed screens being blinded, etc.,” a winery spokesman said.
After completing fermentation and maceration, the new wine is drained—not pressed—from the oak tanks into 100% new small, French oak barrels for the malolactic fermentation. The lees are kept with the wine in-barrel for an extended period to enrich the body and texture of the wine. They are stirred with a conventional barrel-stirring wand at every topping until the first racking, usually in August.
The wine is clarified slowly and naturally through traditional settling and racking techniques with no filtration. In total, Continuum wine spends 20 months in barrel.
The pomace is pressed in an electric-pneumatic Bucher JLB basket press. The press wine is barreled separately and used as appropriate based on the flavors. Some also is used in the second wine, and the rest is sold in bulk.
An unusual feature is concrete risers for the stairs to the catwalks above the tanks, which have wooden steps. These steps are sealed and don’t come in contact with wine, so Mondavi is not concerned about possible TCA contamination.
A sustainable winery
The winery features many advanced features incorporated for sustainability: The walls are 12 inches thick and made of wood frame construction with stucco exterior and filled with foam insulation to R44 level. Skylights brighten the place but eliminate direct sunlight. An arbor will shade the south-facing wall.
The winery is unusually uncluttered, with plumbing and machinery like the cooling/air handling system by RTI hiding in tunnels behind the tanks and above the ceilings, and plumbing in place eliminates the need to run hoses all over. “We’ve worked hard to make it look simple,” said Mondavi.
The air handlers are hidden, too, and all machinery is on flexible casters to minimize sound and vibration, a bugaboo for Mondavi.
The winery collects rainwater from its roof and is filtered by cross-flow to about 20,000 molecular weight and ozonated with a McClain ozone system in transport to the 157,000-gallon storage tank in a cave.
Water is available for firefighting, though excess runoff can be piped to irrigation ponds.
Well water treatment is by dual resin bed ion exchange columns. This results in far less waste than RO.
Heating and cooling equipment is sized “just big enough” to allow slow changes for minimum energy use and peak demands as well as minimizing shock to the wines.
A parabolic Cogenra solar pre-heater for the hot water system operates by heat exchange between the heated fluid in the solar array piping and the water going to the hot water heater. The collector tracks the sun and heats water to 110° F for washing. It is further heated if needed.
The pumps for pump overs are driven by air, which is discharged outside to reduce noise in the winery. Since the tanks are covered, carbon dioxide, evaporated water and alcohol are collected and discharged outside, too, both for safety and to reduce humidity and heat in the winery.
Mondavi plans to someday sequester the carbon dioxide, perhaps by bubbling though a calcium hydroxide solution to precipitate calcium carbonate or chalk, which has many uses.
The winery doesn’t yet have photovoltaic cells installed, partly because the owners wanted to get a better handle on energy consumption for optimum sizing, and also because prices are dropping rapidly. The winery is designed to hide solar panels on the roof behind low walls also used to contain rainwater, and the solar panels won’t interfere with rainwater collection.
Mondavi considers the winery a work in progress, saying, “The winery won’t be finished for years.”
A number of its aspects remain to be incorporated. These include the planned aging caves. The portal is already in place in the winery, and Mondavi said, “Marci and I paid for the property and winery up until now. Continuum will pay for the caves.” Also to come are the photovoltaic arrays for electricity, more tanks and the carbon sequestration.
For now, however, the winery marries the best of the past and present—with a strong look into the future. It’s also very attractive and perfectly fits its site. On top of that, the wine has been collecting kudos since the first vintage, aiming toward Tim Mondavi’s desire to create one of the best wines in the world—not just in Napa Valley.
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