Growing & Winemaking


Winemaker Interview: Celia Welch

June 2013
by Laurie Daniel

Celia Welch’s parents weren’t in the wine business, but she grew up around wine nevertheless. She was raised in Medford, Ore., where her father was a home winemaker who tended a half-acre vineyard, so Welch was able to learn the basics of winemaking and viticulture at an early age. When she decided to make a career of it, she attended the University of California, Davis, graduating in 1982 with a degree in fermentation science.

After working a series of short-term jobs (mostly in California’s Napa Valley) and serving as lab director for Silverado Vineyards, Welch was hired in 1991 by Garen and Shari Staglin as winemaker for Staglin Family Vineyards. Welch also started a small consulting business the same year. A Cabernet Sauvignon specialist, her current clients include Scarecrow, Kelly Fleming, Barbour, Keever and Hollywood & Vine. She also has her own brand, Corra.

Welch was named winemaker of the year by Food & Wine magazine in 2008 and was nominated for a James Beard Award the following year. She is a professional member of the American Society for Enology and Viticulture and a past co-chair of the Napa Valley Wine Technical Group.

Wines & Vines: You’ve helped two clients, Kelly Fleming and Staglin Family, design wineries in caves. What are the benefits and drawbacks of building caves?

Celia Welch: I think that, from a land-use standpoint, caves are a very good option. They usually offer great storage conditions with a minimal impact on the surrounding land. They’re not perfect, in that they are slightly more difficult to keep clean than a well-constructed building, more difficult to move barrels around in and somewhat more difficult in terms of lighting. (When was the last time you felt a cave was overly bright?) Air circulation is a concern, and if not considered carefully you can end up with pockets of mildew on your barrels or temperature gradients throughout the cave. At least in Napa they tend to be just a bit warmer than ideal, so you need to consider a chiller of some sort. But again, because they are so well insulated, it’s relatively easy to keep the temperatures constant. Carbon dioxide evacuation can be a concern if the cave is being used for primary fermentation. Consider storing fermenting wines near the cave entrance and making sure circulation is adequate in that area.

But all in all, they make a lot of sense. They don’t work for flat parcels, but if a hillside is available, it might mean better wine storage and minimal disruption of vineyard operations. I like using caves as much as possible, so that more of our prime agricultural land is used for vineyards.

At Kelly Fleming Winery in Calistoga, Calif., the cave provides wonderful storage for Cabernet barrels, and we have added both humidity and refrigeration so the temperature is great for Sauvignon Blanc barrel fermentation as well. Kelly’s cave was created by blasting some very solid rock, so she was able to keep the cave walls unlined, and the solid rock surface is beautiful. It is a highlight of the visitor’s tour experience, in addition to being a great place to store barrels.

W&V: For aboveground wineries, are there building materials that you prefer?

Welch: In my opinion, the building material is less important than the overall design of the facility. I’ve seen corrugated metal buildings that look great and, with enough insulation, function well also. I tend to be leery about wood used near fermentation or barrel-storage areas, but if it is sealed well and tested periodically for TCA, I know it can work. Kelly Fleming has a wood ceiling above her fermentation tanks that is lovely. Staglin Family’s underground fermentation cellar is well insulated and spacious enough to keep clean easily, which is a key component to maintaining a high level of wine quality over the long term.

At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve worked in plenty of older wine facilities with uneven floors that cannot be readily cleaned, have poor lighting (how do you clean up mold and dirt if you can’t see it in the first place?) and poor air circulation, so that barrels near the floor are 5ºF cooler than those at the top of the stack. Wineries that cannot be readily cleaned tend to start smelling like musty basements. Quality control becomes damage control: trying to correct mistakes and contain microbial contamination. Why not prevent all those headaches? Designing a winery with good insulation, good cooling, good lighting and good drainage will lead to better overall sanitation. This makes for better wines.

W&V: How do you help a client reconcile his or her wish list with the financial budget?

Welch: I’ve witnessed firsthand in every project that it can be difficult during the design process to separate out the nuts and bolts from the bells and whistles. I was involved with a design project years ago where berry-sorting equipment was ruled out as being too pricey, but the full commercial kitchen stayed in the plan, then ended up being used about once every five years. Every member of the winery team will have a different perspective about what matters, and the owner and architect will need a very clear vision of how to balance production, marketing, sales and administrative functions into one facility that works well for all.

So, as a winemaker, I always have to advocate for spending money on the production space and equipment. I think that well-made wines need to be the foundation of a successful wine business. Too much spent on retail sales areas, fancy kitchens, etc., may help marketing efforts, but without great wines to sell, what’s the point? How do you reconcile all of that? Figure out what matters most right now and hold onto those “wish list” items for a few years down the road—incorporating them into a Phase Two expansion plan—and design the winery with expansion in mind!

Every project I’ve been involved with has had discussions about how to design Phase One so that a Phase Two expansion would be a possibility. This means watching rooflines so they can be extended if need be, and not placing major electrical panels, power lines, gas mains, etc., at the end of the building where expansion might occur. Consider how the winery access road might be able to handle more traffic and slightly larger trucks. How would you go about handling more wastew ater, a larger bottling line, more case goods, more visitors? Where would you put more fermentation tanks if wine sales are strong? We always hope that, 10 years after construction, the winery is successful enough to warrant expansion. The time to think about how that will occur is before the groundbreaking of Phase One.

W&V: You’re not a big proponent of gravity-flow wineries. Why not? Is the gravity-flow aspect less important for you as a Cabernet Sauvignon specialist?

Welch: I have worked with both gravity-flow and non-gravity-flow situations, and my gut feeling is that, if you lined up 10 great bottles of wine, you might be hard-pressed to identify which were made with gravity and which were not. I use gravity at Keever Vineyards in Yountville, Calif.
I make my own wine, Corra, there as well because it fits well into the flow of the receiving system. We found a way to use gravity without adding expense by using a mezzanine, and during the non-harvest months it makes for a wonderful visitor route. They get to stand on our mezzanine and look over the fermentation area so that they can see, hear and smell everything that is happening without the danger of tripping over hoses, slipping on a wet floor or meeting a working forklift. This works well for us. I also use nitrogen displacement to move wine gently from barrels, and yes, we pump the wine to the bottling line.

I have bottled using gravity, but it is very slow, which I do not think helps wine quality. A slower bottling rate means wine sits in a partial tank longer. But I agree with your premise that for Cabernet production this is less of an issue than it might be for, say, Pinot Noir. Also, I’ve worked in situations where power outages were frequent and long, and gravity flow is wonderful in those situations.

Gravity can be helpful in a number of ways, but I don’t think it’s a make-or-break criteria for winery design. If it fits into your plans, that’s wonderful. If it adds expense and the budget is tight, I think there might be other items that take higher priority.

A resident of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Laurie Daniel has been a journalist for more than 25 years. She has been writing about wine for publications for nearly 15 years and has been a Wines & Vines contributor since 2006.

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