Growing & Winemaking


Custom Crush in a Cave

December 2011
by Paul Franson
Justin Hunnicutt Stephens held his first harvest this year at the new Hunnicutt Winery in St. Helena, Calif., a rare winery built at a time when many wine businesses have been struggling. The winery is also rare in other ways: Stephens and his father designed it from the start to provide custom winemaking for other boutique wineries—this is not unusual in itself, but Hunnicutt was constructed to the high standards typical of a boutique winery.

Most new custom-crush wineries, by contrast, are utilitarian buildings—often in industrial areas. Stephens’ winery is largely built in an elaborate cave that also offers opportunities to impress visitors.

The craft winery occupies a hilltop on the Silverado Trail across from Rombauer Vineyards and has another unusual twist: The property doesn’t include a vineyard. Most newcomers planning high-end wineries in the Napa Valley start with vineyards—the romantic image that draws many to the attractive valley. They buy a 20-acre parcel that also allows construction of a winery, hire a vineyard manager to plant vines and build a fancy house with the intention of someday adding a picturesque winery, perhaps made from local stone or in the form of a faux-Tuscan villa or French chateau.

The Hunnicutt property is big enough for a winery at 15.1 acres, but the steep hillsides can’t be planted to grapes. The land, not being suitable for vineyards, was also relatively reasonable (by Napa Valley standards), though Stephens declined to disclose the price.

Rather than a mansion, the property is home to a 1950s-era Sears Roebuck fabricated house kit and the new, 2,400-square-foot office building. It also is modest as it only contains offices, the lab and a temporary tasting room. Stephens plans to build a proper tasting room in the future and has allotted space for a 900-square-foot building.

Unusual approach
Perhaps the reason for the unusual approach to constructing a winery is that Justin Hunnicutt Stephens knows his way around the valley and the wine business. The son of Don Stephens, owner of boutique wine brand D.R. Stephens, Justin Stephens didn’t intend to go into the wine business—at least not initially. He studied business at the University of California, Berkeley, and then went into commercial real estate thinking that, like his father, he’d work for 40 years and then get into wine.

Unfortunately, he found the work boring. “After six months, I found myself waiting for weekends.” He started taking wine classes at Napa Valley College, spending more and more time hanging around his long-time friend, winemaker Kirk Venge, as well as D.R. Stephens’ founding winemaker, Cary Gott.

He also worked part-time at Miner Family Winery and Saddleback Cellars, then Seavey Vineyard before joining his father at D.R. Stephens. Meanwhile, he made his first Hunnicutt wine in 2004 at Seavey.

Stephens and his dad reasoned that a quality wine at a price lower than the D.R. Stephens label (typically $100-plus) had potential, so they merged the companies. Hunnicutt wines are mostly $30 to $48.

It seemed the perfect match: D.R. Stephens owns 15 acres of estate vineyards but no winery, while Hunnicutt has no vineyards (it contracts for grapes from 12 vineyards) and will provide production space for both brands.

They keep the wine brands distinct and don’t market the wines together. The two brands even have different winemakers, Venge for Hunnicutt and Mike Hirby for D.R. Stephens.
All French oak for Hunnicutt

As the winemaker for Hunnicutt Wines, Kirk Venge manages the barrel program and chooses coopers. Venge says that the winery uses different levels of new barrels—all French oak—for its three levels of wine.

It’s a minimum of 50% new oak for all wines, increasing to 80% for the winery’s AVA series that names specific source appellations on the label. Reserve wines age in 100% new French oak. Venge uses several coopers regularly, including Tonnellerie Taransaud, Fabbrica Botti Gamba, Demptos, Alain Fouquet and Tonnellerie Sylvain. He specifies thin stave, medium toast plus, tight grain wood from the Allier and Tronçais forests. He also uses some other barrels.

This year, Venge fermented a small lot of red wines from Beckstoffer’s Georges III vineyard in barrels. The winery removed the heads and then fermented the wines for about 12 days. “We use wild yeasts, and it takes a few days for them to take off, so the fermentation itself is about eight days.”

He has a cooper replace the heads, then cellar staffers rinse out the barrels and immediately refill them with wine.

Venge leaves the Hunnicutt Napa Valley Cabernet in barrels for 22 months, with the reserve getting a few more months of aging at 27 to 28 months. The wines are bottled unfined and unfiltered, then he tries to keep them in the bottle for three to six months before releasing them, unless customer demand makes that impractical.

Venge adds that customers are especially eager for the winery’s Zinfandel and Chardonnay, so the winery turns those wines faster. “It’s good for cash flow, but also the wines are drinking nicely young.”
A winery in a cave
Vincent Georges’ The Cave Co. dug the 10,000 square feet of caves that are home to the winery as well as a larger partial “cut and cover” space that contains fermentation tanks. Digging began March 1, 2010, and the winery moved in Aug. 22, 2011.

Stephens was very happy with The Cave Co. and most of his other contractors, but he was so unhappy with the general contractor he used that he wouldn’t even disclose the name.

Interestingly, no engineer or architect was required to dig the cave, though Stephens had to get a mine permit from the federal government and permits for the entrances from Napa County. By contrast, getting the permits to build a winery in Napa County can be very challenging.

Stephens leases space to a number of other wine brands besides Hunnicutt, natural ly starting with D.R. Stephens. Winemakers Venge and Hirby make wine for the other brands produced at the winery. Most operate as alternating proprietors, though a few operate with California Alcoholic Beverage Control 17 wholesale and 20 retail licenses as “virtual wineries,” which are legally wholesalers and retail wine sellers.

The brands produced, by winemaker, are D. R. Stephens Estate, Parallel, Charnu and Relic by Mike Hirby; Hunnicutt, Scully, RemRidg, Winter, Moffett, Carte Blanch and Bure by Kirk Venge.

The permit for the winery allows a 25,000-case output per year, but the initial facility can handle about 15,000 cases. D.R. Stephens and Hunnicutt total about 4,000 cases combined.

A single assistant winemaker helps all the brands under the direction of Hirby and Venge.

Designed for collaboration
Though it seems an ambitious project for these trying times, Stephens says the cave cost half what a basic metal industrial building would, and it saves money in utilities and ongoing maintenance as well. Stephens designed the facility for custom crushing small lots in collaboration with the winemakers. “We’re not looking for overflow from larger wineries,” he emphasizes.

The grapes are crushed outside on a crush pad. The cave contains many small tanks of different sizes for flexibility, though small tanks cost almost as much as larger ones.

Equipment includes two 3,000-gallon tanks, 16 1,500-gallon tanks and three 1,000-gallon tanks. All but four are new tanks from Criveller; four 1,500-gallon tanks were moved from the facility where Hunnicutt and D.R. Stephens formerly made wine. Hunnicutt also uses smaller tanks like a 500-gallon TransStore and some stainless barrels.

All wine brands share the Armbruster RotoVibe E2 destemmer (they don’t really crush), and utilize three different sorting methods to remove undesirable fruit.

The first sorter is a P&L manual incline sorter used to remove bad clusters, leaves and material other than grapes. The second sorter is a Le Trieur shaker table that lets shot berries and raisins fall out. Hunnicutt doesn’t charge clients for using this automated shaker.

The final sorter is a P&L belt sorter where bad berries can be removed; like the first sorter, it can accommodate six operators. The winery generally contracts with Maldonado Services for workers.

The press, a small Bucher RPF 22 bladder press, handles all wines, but the winery may buy another larger press because of the time involved with whole-cluster pressing of white grapes.

Reverse osmosis for H20
Winery water comes from wells dug by Don Huckfeldt. A reverse-osmosis system provided by North Coast Water Works removes silica from the water. The winery had to get a permit to dig the well and monitors its usage.

The winery has separate drainage systems for rainwater and winery wastewater, which it stores in two tanks. The East Bay Municipal Utilities District carries it away and mixes it with its wastewater.

As a custom-crush winery, Hunnicutt doesn’t break out every small charge but collects flat fees (with some operations like berry sorting costing extra.) “We don’t charge small-lot fees—that’s what we do—and we don’t nickel and dime customers,” he claims, acknowledging that the facility’s prices reflect the service and facilities it offers.

The winemakers choose coopers and barrels, and between Hunnicutt and D.R. Stephens alone, 11 coopers are involved. The winemakers ferment some red wines in barrels experimentally, removing and reinstalling the heads themselves.

Hunnicutt now has about 600 barrels in use, but it has the capacity to house 1,465 comfortably, according to Stephens. The barrels are stored no more than three high using Western Square racks.

Family money wasn’t used for the bulk of the project. Stephens borrowed from Mechanics Bank to buy the property and build his cave. Stephens says digging and finishing the cave was half the cost of a conventional building—not even considering the savings in energy for cooling or heating.

Most of all, he emphasizes that this is a business, not a hobby. “If it doesn’t work out, someone else’s name will be on the property in a few years,” he says.

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