From Black Mold to Premium Pinot

February 2012
by Andrew Adams
    Finding success with concrete eggs

    Thomas George Estates winemaker Chris Russi said he’s been very happy with four concrete egg fermentors from Sonoma Cast Stone. He said he’s found the concrete to be quite beneficial to the winery’s estate Chardonnay program. Three of the eggs are dedicated to white fermentation. The fourth egg, used for reds, has a small hatch near its bulbous bottom.

    Russi said he’s been impressed by the oxygen permeability of the concrete and finds that as the Chardonnay ferments, the release of carbon dioxide and the curvature of the egg create a natural mixing of the lees. He added he complements this natural mixing by stirring with a punch-down paddle. For the reds, Russi said he likes how the egg compresses the cap and provides color stability. To manage the cap in the egg, Russi said he just punches down through the egg’s top hatch.

Sandblasting black mold off the walls, laying down new floors and essentially building a modern winery on the site of an old one—these were the easy jobs for Jeremy Baker as he worked to open Thomas George Estates winery.

The difficult parts? He certainly counts the two cave-ins and blasting through solid bedrock for a cave project that went from simple to slightly maddening. “With caves there’s no certainty. You don’t know what you’re going to find until you start digging,” he said.

What Baker found was an arduous excavation, but one that finally came to an end in 2010. The cave project was the last piece in a multi-million-dollar rebuild on the site of what had been the Davis Bynum winery located on Westside Road near Healdsburg, Calif., in the Russian River Valley of Sonoma County.

The name of the winery comes from Jeremy’s father Thomas and Thomas’s father George. Thomas Baker decided to enter the wine industry after a lengthy career in law, specializing in mergers and acquisitions for one of Canada’s largest firms and later as the owner of his own firm.

Thomas Baker passed along a passion for wine to his son, who nurtured it while running his own restaurant business and later as he worked with a wine-distribution company traveling the world’s wine regions. Jeremy Baker’s thirst for wine knowledge led him to the Russian River Valley, and there the Bakers decided they wanted to craft world-class Pinot Noir.

Jeremy Baker is now president and chief operating officer of the winery that saw its fourth vintage this past harvest and produces 8,000 cases with 65% of total sales coming from the direct-to-consumer channel. The winery specializes in producing estate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the $30 to $50 price range

Rebuilding history

In March 2008, the Bakers purchased the Bynum property, which had been converted to a winery in 1973 by essentially dropping a roof over the remnants of three separate buildings that had housed a hop kiln in the 1920s. After a long and successful career in the wine industry, Bynum sold the Davis Bynum property in 2007 to the Klein family, owners of Rodney Strong Vineyards.

Bynum is recognized as a pioneer in the Russian River Valley, being the first to make a single-vineyard Pinot Noir. But there had been few improvements to the original Bynum winery over the decades. Baker said his family purchased the property for about $7.3 million and made an equivalent investment in the rebuild: “I don’t think there’s an inch of ground here we didn’t work on,” Baker said.

The old tasting room, housed in a simple room with exposed brick walls, was heated by an open fireplace. Visitors had to use an outhouse. “It was kinda garagey-style, for sure,” Baker said. The tasting room housed in the original Davis Bynum winery is used during the week, and a tasting area in the cave is employed for weekends.

While Baker had a vision of creating a premium winery, he said he also wanted to maintain a connection to the historic nature of the property. “There was a lot of character to the place we didn’t want to lose,” he said. “We wanted to tie in the relationship to new and old.”

To that end, Baker left much of the exposed stone of the old buildings, but he had all the surfaces sandblasted and then sealed with an antimicrobial epoxy treatment. The new tasting room inside the winery features modern temperature control as well as a sugar pine ceiling and a new concrete countertop. The estate vineyards grow on a multitude of different soils, and Baker has plans to incorporate samples of these soils into display tables in the tasting room.

The cellar at Thomas George didn’t just need renovating, it needed to be rebuilt from the ground up. When Baker bought the property he found a cellar with the original stone walls covered in black mold. “It smelled like vinegar,” he said. The floors didn’t even have drains, and one of the first steps of the rebuild was to “float” in new floors at an angle so wastewater would flow to a central drain that also had to be cut.

Baker installed a total of 27 tanks from Westec, 19 of which are closed-top and range in size from 300 to 3,000 gallons—six 5-ton open-tops and two 3-ton open-tops.

In addition to the new floor, walls and tanks, Baker said he installed a hot and cold glycol system, an argon gas line, compressed air and catwalks to access all of the fermentation tanks. He also upgraded the winery’s electrical system.

From vineyard to tank

Thomas George sources fruit from three main estate vineyards that comprise more than 60 total acres. The Bakers removed most of the original vines from the Davis Bynum Vineyard, leaving 7 acres of Pinot Noir. To these they added 16 more acres of Pinot Noir (clones 777, 667, Pommard, Swan, Martini and Wadenswil) and Chardonnay (clones 809 and Wente) on the site now known as Baker Ridge. The vineyard also has small lots of Viognier and Grenache.

In March 2011, the Bakers purchased the Cresta Ridge vineyard, comprised of 4 acres of Chardonnay and 10 acres of Pinot Noir in Sonoma County’s Green Valley, and the 30-acre Starr Ridge vineyard southw est of the Sonoma County town of Windsor in the Russian River AVA that is home to 26 acres of Pinot Noir and four of Chardonnay. In addition to their own vineyards, Baker said he sources small lots of Zinfandel and Syrah from other growers in the area.

Baker said he’ll determine maturity through berry flavor and seed development, but added that he’ll sometimes bring a refractometer into the vineyard. Workers will hand-harvest the grapes between 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. into half-ton MacroBins that are delivered to the winery by truck.

Grapes are received at an exterior crush pad just outside the cellar. A major element of the rebuild involved excavating a small hillside to clear space for the crush pad and allow trucks access.

White grapes are dumped into a hopper with a small auger that gently directs the grapes into a Puleo SF36 bladder press. The juice is then pumped directly to stainless tanks in the cellar. After a bit of cold settling, the juice is then racked off heavy lees into other tanks, including the eggs, or to embedded pipes that lead to a barrel room beneath the cellar. Russi said he fills barrels for white wine barrel fermentation using gravity. He added that two cellar workers could coordinate the job using walkie-talkies.

Some improvements at the winery came through experience. Baker said that for about an hour on late summer afternoons, the sun shines directly on the crush pad, reflecting off the stainless equipment and making a 100°F day feel like 115°F. Baker had roll-down screens installed to block out the sun and keep workers cooler. He also added a sound system to help staff get through those long harvest days.

Native yeast fermentation

Red grapes are dumped into a P & L Specialties incline sorter with two workers on each side removing leaves and other MOG. About 10% of all the reds are designated for whole-cluster fermentation, while most grapes pass through a Vega 10 destemmer with the crusher removed and then onto shaker tables for further sorting.

Russi said that whole-cluster lots fall into bins that are dumped into open tops with a forklift. The winery has two Nissan propane-powered lifts. Other lots flow through a small auger and are pumped to tanks with a Carlsen Waukesha. He said the red line could operate at about 1.5 tons per hour. The winery is equipped with two of the Waukeshas as well as an air pump.

Fermentations are achieved using native yeast, and the rooms in the cellar can be warmed or cooled to assist with fermentation. If some must or juice needs help to get going, Russi said he’d use Assmanhausen or QA23. Cap management for most of the open-top tanks is performed through three pneumatic punch-down devices set on rails. Baker likened the custom-made devices’ operation to Cadillacs because they are so smooth. Two small, 3-ton open-tops receive manual punch downs. Baker said they have not done a pump over since the 2009 harvest.

For pressing reds, Russi uses a new Carlsen basket press that he describes as his favorite piece of equipment because of the control it gives him during pressing and how easy the press’s design makes it to taste during a press run.

Below the cellar, barrels are stored in a basement. The original wooden beams support the low roof, but they have been treated with a sealant and an antimicrobial coating. Here, too, Baker said he was confronted with a dank, moldy mess that had to be cleaned out, sandblasted and then restored.

New air conditioning keeps the temperature around 58°F, and the basement is primarily used to store barrels of Chardonnay as they go through fermentation. Russi said he lets a small portion (about 10%-20%) go through secondary fermentation, but most are treated with sulfur dioxide when primary is complete and then head to cold storage in the winery’s cave system.

Digging the cave

Baker said that when his family first acquired the property it included an old barn that they thought could serve as a barrelhouse. The barn proved too decrepit to convert, so they tore it down to make way for a parking lot. Opposite the winery stood a hillside that presented an ideal entrance for a cave system.

The entire cave structure, built by Bacchus Caves, is 8,000 square feet with 6,500 square feet used for storage and the rest for hospitality. Despite being in a cave, the tasting room offers a feeling of open space because of its large, dome-like ceiling. In the main tasting area, a bar is situated along one side of the spacious main entrance hall that also includes couches and chairs in a lounge area. A long banquet table for special events is situated off the tasting area in an adjacent chamber.

Baker said the ceiling is from “the luck of being unlucky.” The dome appeared not by design but by accident. The tasting area was the scene of a major cave in. “The workers left for the weekend, and they came back on Monday and this was all filled in,” Baker said while standing in the middle of the tasting area.

That cave-in was one of two experien¬ced by the excavation crew, who also encountered a variety of different soils to work with and a section of solid bedrock that had to be blasted with dynamite. The cave walls are still marked with the white stains of Xypex as the waterproofing material heals and sets like a skin over the soil. Baker said that after completing the cave there were some initial mildew problems, but those have been resolved by keeping the cave dry and leaving the lights on.

Heating in the tasting area is provided through a radiant system in the floor. On the far side of the cave, Baker has a private tasting area that he designed himself. This small room is framed with rough-hewn wooden timbers. The timbers are salvaged first-growth redwood from the 1880s. Many of the winery’s library vintages are stored in redwood cabinets that ring the room and circle an intimate tasting table. Baker said he uses the room for client education and special tastings. “We’re very focused on the wine experience here,” he said.

Aging and bottling

Russi said he uses a variety of French cooperage for aging, but less than half of the barrels are new for the Pinot Noir and even less new oak for the Chardonnay. “The idea is to express what’s in the vineyard,” Russi said.

Russi added that he’s using more puncheons, eight of the larger barrels from eight differe nt cooperages, and he’s encouraged by the results. He said the puncheons provide a little more structure to the wine and add an interesting element to the finished product. About every three weeks, Russi said he stirs the lees on the red barrels until around February. The wine ages on lees right up until bottling unless Russi detects any reductive flavors in a barrel.

Prior to bottling, Russi has the red barrels moved over to the cellar, where the workers rack the wine to tanks. Select Mobile Bottlers provides bottling service at the winery. Prior to bottling the reds, all barrel care, including topping, is conducted in the cave, which is equipped with water hoses and drains.

Now that all the construction dust has settled, Baker said the next focus at the winery would be to bolster the winery’s special events. The estate already features three picnic areas and four guesthouses— all remodeled during the renovations. Baker said he is permitted to host a couple dozen events per year, and he’d like to reach that permit soon. He’s also planning to install a commercial kitchen, noting his background in the restaurant industry.

Baker said that as the manager of the construction of the winery and cave he had to confront several challenges of working with an older property and the surprises that can come with cave excavation. “I think that was our biggest challenge. You got what you got, and you had to make it work,” he said.

Despite the challenges, Baker said ultimately that the project has been a satisfying experience in realizing the family dream of a premium Russian River Valley winery. “Retrofitting the winery was really creative and a lot of fun.”

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