A decade ago, Lisa and Lothar Maier decided that when they retired, they’d grow a few grapes and make some wine. Since they lived near the Livermore Valley wine country in California and liked it there, they figured that would be the spot. But first, they needed a new house.
While they were house hunting, a gem of a vineyard parcel came on the market, prompting them to switch gears and bump up the wine project. It turned out most of the vines needed replanting, so they started from scratch, in the meantime making a bit of wine in alternating proprietor facilities at Wente Vineyards. They drew up plans for a new winery facility on the vineyard property, and just as they were days away from pulling the building permits, an existing winery facility, just the right size, showed up for sale, so they scooped it up and switched gears again.
The only problem with their new acquisition was that it came with another 20 acres of vineyards, capacity they didn’t yet have any use for, so they leased the vines to Wente. The winery was renovated and filled with new equipment, and Las Positas Vineyards went into full production in 2011. Just in time, they snagged a small warehouse for their case goods for a song, completing the end-to-end package.
They still haven’t found that new house.
The Maiers named their venture Las Positas Vineyards, recalling the name given to the 40,000-acre Spanish land grant, which was first developed by Robert Livermore in the late 1830s and later became the basis for the modern city of Livermore. The vineyard, part of the Kalthoff Common portion of southern Livermore, held a fine location, but the vines needed work, so nearly everything was ripped out and replaced with a mix of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Barbera, Petite Sirah and Tempranillo. The Kalthoff vineyard serves as the base for Las Positas’ Estate wines and the majority of its 2,500-case production, all small-lot bottlings. The winery’s three current white wines—a Chardonnay, a Pinot Grigio and a Pinot Blanc—are made with purchased Livermore grapes.
While the vineyards in the Kalthoff area are fairly new, the vineyard surrounding the winery facility the Maiers purchased has a much older pedigree: It is known as the Wetmore Vineyard, named after Livermore pioneer grower/winemaker Charles Wetmore. Some day, Las Positas will use those grapes as it expands and likely replants many of the vines. Meantime, the fruit goes to Wente, with Las Positas receiving a few tons of selected grapes.
The winery was built by a fledgling label that ran into financial trouble before it got to full production. The structures—the winery proper and a separate building with offices and an event space—had enough room for winemaking and tasting and was already equipped with drains, floors reinforced to support heavy wine tanks, sufficient power and so on. The winery came full of equipment, most of which the Maiers replaced. Besides remodeling the tasting room and event spaces, they introduced some interesting functional touches in the production area, replacing all the wooden structures with tile or something else inert, to stave off microbial growth, and coating the floors with a thick layer of polyurethane, making them not only sanitary but crack-free, resilient and easily gripped even when wet.
The facility is built into a gentle hillside, with tank and barrel rooms on the ground floor and the bottling line and outdoor crush pad higher up on a second level. The total production area is roughly 3,500 square feet. Las Positas is licensed for making up to 10,000 cases of wine; winemaker Brent Amos thinks the winery would max out at about 7,500; and for the moment, the goal is strengthening the quality of the 2,500-case output.
The once-planned winery—the one that never got built—lives on in the Las Positas label. The central image is inspired by the original design, overlaid with an homage to the sensibility of a New Orleans painter the Maiers are fond of, James Michalopoulos. One of his paintings hangs just outside the tasting room, tying everything together. Fortunately, the image bears a passing resemblance to the new winery, or at least its color scheme.
The Las Positas crush pad (and its crew) can handle about 10 tons of grapes per day at the peak of harvest. White grapes are whole-cluster pressed with a Diemme press, and the juice flows downstairs to tanks or barrels for fermentation. The configuration of the crush pad for reds is slightly unusual: Grapes head up an elevator to the Vaucher Beguet destemmer-crusher (mostly for destemming) and then onto a CMA sorting table. Obvious MOG gets pulled out in the field or on the elevator; the sorting table helps get rid of jacks and allows a small portion of free-run juice to be collected on the spot and routed into the pink wine program. (Las Positas makes its rosé from a bit of every red variety that comes in the door, making for slight variations from year to year.) The cleaned fruit is then pumped downstairs for tank fermentation.
The new tanks purchased for the winery come from Prospero and feature computer control of temperature and pump-over cycles. Tank capacity ranges from 500 gallons to 2,000 gallons. The tanks are all 3/4 jacketed, so the smallest lots of grapes (less than 1 ton) are the only ones that go through bin fermentation. Winemaker Amos prefers tanks to bins for the greater temperature control. Las Positas also has several 600-gallon movable Transtores that can be used for small lots and cold stabilization when hooked up to a G&D chiller.
Outside the winery, along the driveway, are four Santa Rosa Stainless Steel tanks from the original winery equipment, larger in capacity and fully jacketed, thus able to do their work outdoors. A separate Whaley chiller provides outside cooling.
Las Positas uses a wide range of yeast strains, none of them particularly exotic. The winery’s Chardonnay gets barrel fermentation, the other whites are mainly tank-fermented with a portion barrel-fermented. Winemaker Amos aims for relatively cool red wine fermentations peaking no higher than about 80º F. As he explained his feeling that higher temperatures can result in baked flavors, Lisa Maier added, “which I really do not like.”
Harvest and fermentation numbers are tracked by a small but efficient lab facility, which handles Brix, TA, pH, sulfur, alcohol and harvest YAN measurement. If the need arises for more specialized analysis, samples go to Enartis Vinqury.
Reds tha t are ready to press get pumped upstairs with an Elipompa pump, pressed and returned downstairs to the barrel room for aging. Amos employs quite a battery of coopers, mostly French but also American and eastern European. Forests and toast levels are matched to different varieties and lots. The winery is experimenting with oversize puncheon barrels and with custom barrels designed for red wine fermentation. Amos wants the oak to be a spice, not a flavor, and overall he utilizes less than 50% new oak.
Attention to the details
In the fermentation and barrel rooms, a lot of attention has gone into avoiding nails and splinters and scratchy surfaces that can make cellar life miserable. The polyurethane floor covers by Cornerstone Flooring are part of that; in addition, barrel racks and wine pallets are made of plastic, not metal or wood. Formerly wooden steps were replaced with tile. The resulting production environment isn’t sterile or antiseptic, just clean, smooth and largely devoid of hiding places for bugs or molds or TCA.
Barrel cleaning is done with an Aquatools steam generator, which also gets used for tank cleaning on tanks that have not been sitting empty for long.
Lisa Maier jokes about how her husband gave her a forklift for her birthday. “That one was this year’s birthday,” she says of a Toyota forklift near the crush pad. “The one you saw downstairs was for another birthday.” She hastens to add that her husband is perfectly capable of delivering more romantic presents as well.
White wines get finished with cold stabilization in the Transtores and sterile filtration with a Millepore membrane filter. Some get bentonite fined, though Amos says he has never encountered a barrel-fermented Chardonnay that needed bentonite. Many reds self-clarify through barrel aging, though some may need minimal 5-micron filtration with the winery’s Velo plate-and-frame setup.
While many small wineries utilize mobile bottling services, figuring that an in-house bottling is a big capital investment for something used a few days per year, Las Positas has its own—or rather its own two GAI monoblocks, for different sized lots. Why? “Because,” says Lisa, “we’re control freaks. We want to do everything ourselves, from the vineyard to the case-goods storage.”
Bottles come from Demptos, capsules from Ramondin, corks from Scott Labs. The label design, with its allusion to the winery that never happened, came from Sugarman Design outside Sacramento, with printing by Elite Label.
Case goods get held at a small temperature-controlled warehouse across town. Most of the 250 wine club members pick up wine at the winery, and winery staff sends the rest via Federal Express. Sales are overwhelmingly concentrated at the winery, through the wine club and tasting room, with a handful of local restaurant placements. Maier has been running a trial on distribution through Amazon.com, but the results are not yet in. Discussions are under way with two supermarket chains. Distribution through the website, designed by former employee Justin Falco, currently covers only California, making compliance issues simple enough to handle in-house.
The Livermore Valley has steadily sprouted new, small wineries for the past two decades. Many have been modest affairs opened by scientific folk from the nearby Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who thought a winery would be fun, or by home winemakers whose production got out of control, as it is wont to do. Las Positas has been put together on a different model, sparing no expense, worrying about details, controlling the process from end to end. Whether the venture can make great wine will take some time to decide; in the meantime, the facility they have put together seems very much up to the task.
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