Growing & Winemaking


Winemaker Interview: Greg Kitchens

August 2010
by Laurie Daniel

As a Napa Valley native, winemaker Greg Kitchens developed an early interest in wine, eventually earning a biochemistry degree from the University of California, San Diego, in 1998. He worked at Beaulieu Vineyard and Sebastiani Vineyards before joining Don Sebastiani & Sons in 2001. Kitchens has been the head winemaker there since 2009, and he works with a wide range of brands, many of them sealed with alternative closures.

Wines & Vines: Why did the company decide to move so heavily into alternative closures?

Greg Kitchens:
Don Sebastiani & Sons has always been into alternative closures, since the beginning of the company in 2001. We started using synthetics for our driver brands, Pepperwood Grove and Smoking Loon, and since then we have ventured into almost every closure for our programs: Neocork, Nomacorc, Amorim agglomerated cork, Amorim natural cork, G3 screwcaps, Vino-Seal, Zorks and now 3-liter boxes.

A big reason for using these closures is eliminating the possibility of cork taint in our wines. Historically, we had noticed a trend of cheaper corks and TCA contamination in large-scale winemaking in the industry. Your average wine consumer notices that a wine is off when cork taint is in a range of 4 to 6 parts per trillion. A couple of bad bottles could lose a consumer for life on a brand. By using synthetics, we know that our consumer will be getting a bottle of wine that is virtually bulletproof.

W&V: How have you matched brands and/or varietals with closures?

Kitchens: We do match certain brands with specific closures. Smoking Loon and Pepperwood Grove have always been geared toward synthetic and agglomerated corks for clean packaging on a mass scale.

Our Screw Kappa Napa program, or SKN for short, was driven by the desire to bottle value-priced Napa wines in a screwcap package. We want our consumer to see our packaging as fun and exciting.

This brings us to our Zork venture. In Australia, where Zorks originated, the closure is actually referred to as a plunger. We thought it would be fun to roll with this and came up with a brand called Plungerhead, geared toward a line of appellation-specific Zinfandels. The Plungerhead label is now part of a separate company, The Other Guys, and it appears that Plungerhead should push around 50,000 cases of sales this year in a Zork closure—but that doesn’t mean that we didn’t have our growing pains.

In the early years of Zork, the closure was very tight and sometimes hard to open. Then we had an issue of wine vapors getting locked inside the cap; anyone who would smell the bottle after opening would assume the wine had spoiled. But after extensive testing of oxygen levels and volatile acidity tracking, we noticed that the wine in the bottle was perfectly fine. It was an issue with the vacuum pressure inside the bottle at the time of bottling that caused the problems with both extracting the closure and with wine vapors getting trapped. Every time we had an issue, Zork Australia and Portola both jumped on testing and making improvements to this closure. Now there are vents in the side of the closure that allow the vapors to escape, eliminating the oxidation/VA issue and allowing for easier extraction of the Zork itself.

Another interesting closure to work with is the Vino-Seal. This closure is a glass or plastic stopper with an inert O-ring. Don Sebastiani and his sons had decided to market a wine label called UAP, Used Automobile Parts. This was a reference to how Bordeaux varietals were much like auto parts in the assembly of a fully operational, blended Napa red wine. This closure seemed like the perfect companion for “gear junkies” who were also interested in wine and would be amused by UAP. In order to test it, we ran 10 cases of wine, each in plastic and glass Vino-Seals, then alternated them between upright storage and keeping the seal wet. Over the next 24 months, we tasted each lot and ran lab analysis to see how the product responded to aging before putting it into use. Both the glass and plastic Vino-Seals passed our tests, and the glass ones were used for three vintages of UAP wines. The brand has since been discontinued.

W&V: What has your research shown about oxygen transfer rates with the closures you use?

Kitchens: Our studies have shown us that there is not enough of a difference in oxygen pickup in the bottle to concern us. We have tested all our closures (Zorks, screwcaps, Neocorks, Nomacorcs, natural corks, agglomerated corks and Vino-Seals) and have checked the dissolved gases during the course of a two-year period, which is considered the life span of most of our wines.

We drop the dissolved O2 to less than 0.5 parts per million in all our wines before heading to the filler. This results in approximately 0.6 ppm dissolved O2 in the bottle. We have only seen a couple of random samples where the dissolved O2 appeared to have climbed to 0.8 ppm (in the early stages of the Zork products). But even at those numbers, there was not a significant decrease in quality based on a taste profile.

Something worth noting is that we do goose our wines with a touch of carbon dioxide before bottling: 400 ppm on the reds and 800 ppm on the whites. This keeps the wines fresh in the bottle and might help keep some of the oxygen at bay when it comes to readily dissolving into the wine over the course of time.

Drinking out of the box

For years, the Smoking Loon brand was bottled with synthetic corks. But Don & Sons recently started using Amorim’s agglomerated corks on Smoking Loon. Winemaker Greg Kitchens says he was hesitant at first because of the possibility of cork taint, “but Amorim has put that concern aside.”

Amorim’s process of steam-treating the cork particles has resulted in very little cork taint, Kitchens says. “We have only heard of a few TCA taint issues in six months of selling these wines.”

The company also started using 3-liter Scholle polyvinyl bag-in-boxes f or the Pepperwood Grove brand. “As we looked at our portfolio and ways to add value on a number of different levels, moving to a boxed package made sense,” Kitchens says. The packages “use less energy to produce than four glass bottles. They also require less fossil fuel to transport because of their light weight, and they are printed on paper sourced from sustainable forests. But the move isn’t without risks. Boxed wines have a 12-month lifespan for consumption. So you have to run a tight inventory on your boxed wines to make sure that it gets on the shelf and consumed in a timely fashion.”

Unlike some bag-in-box packages, the Pepperwood Grove box doesn’t carry a “consume by” date, although there is a Julian date code (showing the consecutive day of the year), Kitchens says.
W&V: Have you had to adjust your winemaking when you work with alternative closures?

Kitchens: We have altered our winemaking style slightly when it comes to working with these closures. We have used more micro-oxygenation in our red wines, with MOx rates on big reds in the range of 2-4 milligrams per liter per month for six months prior to bottling. Most synthetics have a three- to five-year maximum life span with limited oxygen permeation, so these big reds then have the opportunity to soften up and are ready to consume when the consumer pulls the cork. Even with Pinot Noir, when we had to bottle a little earlier than I wanted, we MOx’d it with good results for two months before bottling with a synthetic closure.

We have not changed our sulfur levels, as we feel our sterile filtration at bottling does the trick. In other countries, we have noticed the trend of increasing SO2 levels in some wines bottled with synthetics. I feel that this causes those wines to develop sulfite aromas and draws out plastic aromas from the closure. We tend to bottle at 30 to 35 parts per million free SO2 across the board at Don & Sons.

W&V: Have you seen any drawbacks to the alternative closures?

Kitchens: The only drawback that we have seen with alternative closures is when the wines spend too much time in the bottle before consumption. The synthetics and sometimes the screwcaps tend to draw a plastic, chemical aroma into the wine after extended exposure, sometimes in three to five years.

Our synthetic suppliers, Neocork and Nomacorc, have both been very upfront about the lifespan of these closures. Our business model is to turn over this inventory a number of times during the course of the year. And for this very reason, our blending and bottling are done often, as most of our wines are made for short-term consumption.

Let’s all be honest with ourselves: Most California blended wines selling for around $10 per bottle are not meant to age for five to eight years. We know that the wines themselves are going to start to deteriorate as these synthetic corks hit their maximum lifespan. Given this wine degradation over time, we also monitor these wines by running a tight quality-control program, pulling samples of these wines after a hold-back period. We monitor oxygen, carbon dioxide and free SO2 levels after months and years of aging. So far, we have not noticed any indication of premature oxidation or degradation on our packages, given the parameters of the closure and our winemaking.

One potential drawback to alternative closures is in regard to on-premise sales. Some places like to see natural corks pulled tableside. But then flip this equation when it comes to bartenders: Most bartenders would love to grab a screwcap and pour the glass of wine rather than fumble around with a corkscrew. For this reason, we have a line of Smoking Loon wines in a 1-liter bottle with a screwcap targeted to these high-traffic bars.

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. To contact her or comment on this article, e-mail

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