Winemaking in a Cave
Estate winery Holman Ranch emphasizes Pinot Noir in California's Carmel Valley
Holman Ranch in Carmel Valley, Calif., is a tripartite enterprise. The original guest ranch and hacienda, built in 1928 and carefully restored by the current owners, now serve as an event venue run by hospitality director Hunter Lowder. The riding stables and horse-training operation are rented by several horse owners and trainers. And the 19 acres of estate vineyards and cave winery are the passion of Nick Elliott, Lowder’s husband.
“My mother and father always wanted to own a vineyard and winery, as they spent many vacations biking and hiking through Tuscany and Provence,” Lowder explains. “When my mother was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s, they decided to move quickly to make that dream come true. They started looking for properties, and we stumbled upon Holman Ranch. We purchased it in June 2006 with the intent to plant vineyards and olive groves and build a winery.”
Since the Lowders were not farmers or winemakers, they sought out expert professionals. Vineyard consultant Todd Kenyon studied at the University of California, Davis, and also has worked with Bernardus Vineyards & Winery in Carmel Valley. Winemaker Greg Vita, another Davis alum, spent many years with Spring Mountain Vineyards in Napa Valley before becoming a consulting winemaker in California’s Monterey and Santa Cruz Mountains areas.
The Carmel Valley AVA is a rare one in California, running from east to west and about 12 miles inland from the Monterey Bay. Like the Anderson Valley further north, Carmel Valley enjoys warm daytime temperatures with cooling morning and evening fog during the growing season, favorable conditions for growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Vines are kept slightly stressed, and production is limited to about 3 tons per acre at Holman Ranch. The vineyards are now CCOF certified, and the winery attained SIP (Sustainability in Practice) certification in 2013.
The vineyards were planted at elevations between 950 and 1,150 feet in Carmel Valley and the hills of the Santa Lucia Highlands. A vineyard consultant picked Burgundy and California clonal selections to suit the vineyard’s thin, well-drained sedimentary soils.
Holman Ranch grows Pinot Noir on seven clones and makes one barrel each from six of them: Dijon Clones 777, 115 and 828, California’s Swan Clone, UC Davis Pommard 4 and the ranch’s proprietary Hacienda Clone. (Vineyards were originally planted in 1989 by a previous owner.)
“When planting a new vineyard to Pinot Noir, clonal selection is very important,” Vita explains. “We wanted to have many different characteristics to choose from, coming in from the vineyard. Deciding which clones to plant and where to plant them were some of the most difficult decisions to make early on. We then had to wait three to five years to see if we guessed right. We did pretty well! With hindsight, we probably could have planted a little less 777 and more 828 and Swan.”
Since the 400-acre ranch includes a riverfront parcel, water is available when needed. The ranch keeps holding tanks, an aerobic water-treatment plant and a drainage pond with underwater aerators on-site. The setup was designed by Alberto Gonzalez, who works for the ranch.
Building a cave winery
The winery produces about 5,000 cases per year of estate-grown Pinot Noir, a Pinot Noir rosé, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.
Permitting and planning began when the winery was bonded in 2008, and the all-cave winery was completed in August 2012. The winery is completely underground in order to take advantage of the natural cooling and humidity held below. The caves were dug by Magorian Mine Services.
All winemaking operations—from destemming to crushing and pressing, fermentation, aging and storage—take place in the cave, with only the mobile bottling occurring outside. The 3,000-square-foot area maintains a constant temperature of 58°F, and knowing that the winemaking would occur inside the cave, Elliott arranged for roof ventilation, plus two enormous CO2 venting fans and a thorough CO2 monitoring system throughout the caves. The system was designed and installed by Glen Marks of Refrigeration Technology Inc.
The readout panel is outside the cave entrance, and all staff check the readings before entering. During fermentation season, regardless of what the CO2 monitoring readout says, Elliott adds the additional safety practice of requiring workers to run the fans for 10 minutes before opening and entering the caves.
At harvest, 6 to 8 tons of grapes are processed per day, coming in just four to six half-ton bins at a time. The grapes are handpicked between 7a.m. and noon on any given day.
White grapes go into a Delta XPRO15 bladder press from Bucher Vaslin; the juice is then pumped to Westec fermentation tanks and receives SO2. After 24 hours, yeast is added, and cold fermentation takes about three weeks, with temperature monitors by Refrigeration Technology Inc. keeping the fermentation at a steady 50°-55°F. A Paul Mueller Porta-tank is used for post-fermentation holding of white wines, freeing up fermentation tank space for the red wines. All skins, seeds and stems are composted and returned to the vineyard.
Winery water for wash-downs is on a fast-recharge Phoenix heater, with a compressor made by Ingersoll Rand. Drains in the cave floors carry it to two sets of settling tanks and an underground leach field.
One cold tank most recently held a new Sauternes-style wine from the 2013 vintage, a Pinot Gris/Sauvignon Blanc blend with the Pinot Gris fermented off-dry to about 1° Brix. The cold tank was used to stop fermentation by cooling to 34°F, also dropping out the tartrates, with the wine ready to bottle in February 2014 and release in April.
The Pinot Noir goes into a Delta E2 destemmer, then to four 2-ton JVNW open-top fermentors, with fermentation lasting about seven days at 85°F. Manual punch downs are performed three times daily. All Pinot Noir undergoes malolactic fermentation with Viniflora Oenos.
“With a brand new vineyard and without a track record with the fruit, we went with a proven wine yeast,” Vita says. “As we develop a history with the vineyard, we will try some native yeast fermentations.”
If tank space permits and Vita thinks the vintage will make a good rosé, some juice is bled off the skins for this purpose.
The Pinot Noir is always picked and fermented clone-by-clone, then blended (Hunter’s Cuvee, Holman Ranch Estate Pinot Noir) or bottled singly for the Holman Clonal program, or in single-vineyard offerings (Heather’s Hill Pinot Noir).
Also due to the abundant 2013 vintage, the winery is experimenting with a Port-like wine made from its Pinot Noir. The dessert wine, from four clones of late-harvest 2013 Pinot Noir, was fortified with 170-proof Cognac and is aging in three Tonnellerie François Frères and Tonnellerie de Mercurey barrels until its planned release in 2015.
Vita and Elliott use all French oak since their goal is to make white and red wines in the Burgundian style. Their 100 barrels are all medium toast, and favorite barrels include Tonnellerie Rousseau’s Piano, Mercurey and François Frères.
Elliott considers oak to be neutral after only two vintages. Chardonnay is the only white variety to get barrel time, just three months in first-year barrels. Most of the Pinots get 50% new first-year oak, the rest are in second-year or neutral oak, spending eight to 12 months in barrel before blending and bottling. The Holman Estate Pinot Noir gets 100% first-year oak.
Bottling and packaging
White wines are bottled in February and released in April, and reds are bottled between June and August, making way for the new vintage in the fermentation and holding tanks. The wines are filtered with the Winetech mobile cross-flow filtration system.
Bottling is performed outside the cave by Sobrante Wine Systems (formerly Central Coast Bottling). Most of the wines are bottled into shiners and then labeled as the winery brings them to sale, which Holman Ranch says is good for tax and cash-flow purposes. (Since the wine is under bond, it is taxed as it is labeled.
A small producer like Holman Ranch can prudently hold onto its cash by labeling the wine only as needed.)
Glass for the wine comes from Demptos Glass (the Ranch also produces olive oil, bottled in Bruni Glass), with capsules by Ramondin, corks from Portocork and labels by Collotype.
The clonal program and wine sales
Holman Ranch makes one barrel of Pinot Noir from each of its six clones. Picked on the same day, fermented identically with the same yeast and hand-bottled, the wines are sold as a unique six-pack. Elliott offers tastings of the clone program to wine club members (and to tasting room visitors on selected dates) to allow them to taste the differences each clone can produce under otherwise identical conditions of growth and fermentation.
“This was developed between Greg, Nick and me,” Lowder says. “Since our focus is on planting the right grapes in the right soil, climate and elevation, we thought it was a great idea to show how we get so many different Pinot bottlings.” (Holman Ranch currently is up to four.)
“After going through the clonal development of the vineyards and wines, we thought it would be interesting for the consumer to experience the individual clones,” Vita agrees, “and even to be able to create their own wines by blending the different clones.”
The six-pack comes with blank evaluation forms as well as tasting notes from the proprietor and winemaker.
The winery sells nearly 100% of its wines directly to consumers (one local restaurant and bottle shop also sell the wines). The Holman Ranch wine club has 225 members, the majority of them from California, followed by Alabama, Florida and Texas. Most of the wines, which retail for $16-$40 per bottle, are sold through Holman Ranch events and the Carmel Valley tasting room, with wine club premium members receiving perks like wine education classes, events at the ranch or an annual stay at guest cabins on the property.
With a combination of smart promotion, a well-established hospitality business and studied wine production, Holman Ranch is making a success of the wine business in a unique and desirable setting.
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