Restoring a Historic Stone Winery

April 2012
by Paul Franson
CLICK PHOTO TO PLAY VIDEO: The LT sorting machine employs a slanted shaking table and gentle movement.
The way that Luc and Jodie Morlet financed their new winery is nearly as interesting as its contents and the structure itself. The well-respected French-born winemaker and his wife used a combination of entrepreneurship, refinancing their home, great winemaking and sheer hard work to acquire the rare property and build a winery without partners or investors.

The story starts in Champagne, France, where Luc Morlet’s family has been growing grapes and making wine for five generations. After helping in the family business, Luc earned the equivalent of bachelor’s degree in viticulture, a master’s in enology and an MBA, then worked in Champagne, Burgundy and Bordeaux.

In 1994, however, he met and fell in love with Jodie, an American. Seeking to join her in the United States, he successfully applied for a job at Newton Vineyard, where he was hired with a work permit, then after five years joined Peter Michael Winery in Knights Valley, Calif., just north of Napa County, and made his name creating wines that gained increasing renown.

By then, he and Jodie had married, and the last year he was at Peter Michael, they refinanced their home in order to buy 12 acres of Knights Valley land, half of which they later planted to Cabernet.

The birth of Morlet Family Vineyards
In 2006, the Morlets decided to start their own label. Peter Michael needed a full-time winemaker, so Luc transitioned into the role of consultant while his brother Nicolas took over as winemaker.

The Morlets had no fruit of their own when they started, but Luc had good relationships with suppliers to Newton and Peter Michael. The Morlets took out a home equity loan to buy grapes, and the Morlet label was born.

They started with Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah and a white Bordeaux blend, then added Cabernet—some of it from Napa and some from their own property in Knights Valley. They also produce a late-harvest Semillon, particularly for wine dinners, though they serve their family’s Morlet Champagne as an aperitif.

Luc and Jodie, then a schoolteacher, had two children, and Luc also made wine for wineries including Staglin, where he made his wine for one year, and at Chateau Boswell, where he made his wine for four years.

Earnings from consulting for wineries such as Vineyard 7 & 8 helped finance the equipment needed, which he used at Boswell. Meanwhile, his wines gained acclaim, including 98-point ratings from Robert Parker.

Morlet also started importing high-quality barrels, which served his own needs and provided cash as he sold them to other wineries. He imports barrels from Tonnellerie Vincent Darnajou in Montagne-St. Emilion in Bordeaux and Tonnellerie Gauthier Frères in Menetou-Salon in Burgundy, which he supplements with other French oak barrels.

Creating an estate
In 2010, the Morlets sold their house and bought two adjacent parcels totaling almost 12 acres north of St. Helena. The property was home to an 1880 stone winery built by German immigrant William Castner.

Originally it was a 51-acre plot with 35 acres planted to vines and a tunnel built for wine storage and aging, with a capacity for 70,000 gallons. Only clarets and white wines were produced. During Prohibition, the winery went bankrupt. The property was subdivided and sold after being idle for a number of years. The original stone building was converted into a residence in 1920, during Prohibition.

A Victorian farmhouse and 2 acres of Cabernet vines also are on the 12-acre property, on the bench just west of Highway 29, which also contains Grace Family, Vineyard 29 and Colgin’s Tychson Hill Vineyard—a rare neighborhood indeed.

They bought the winery from Bryant Morris, who had the Flying Horse Winery brand and was working on restoring the ghost winery.

The Morlets set out to return the old winery to its original use, renovating it for structural integrity and modern needs while maintaining the historic character. Today the first floor of the two-story building houses the small (500-600 liter) wooden open-topped fermentation puncheons as well as small (250-1,900 gallon) open-top stainless steel versions. For now, the crush pad is outside, and the upstairs contains offices.

Restoring the property
As might be expected, there were many complications in restoring the old winery. It had been adapted by adding a kitchen and internal partitions, which were removed along with asbestos. The floor of the second story also was replaced.

In the process of renovation, the contractors discovered that someone had sawn through a vital beam to install plumbing; the beam had to be replaced, but it was used as a header over the entrance to a small addition that holds a bathroom, office, case goods storage and a space with sinks, refrigerators and storage for hospitality.

The addition also ties the original stone winery to the hillside and eventually will provide a hospitality opening to a cave. The second phase of the effort in a few years will involve digging the cave with an entrance within the winery and the major portal between the Morlets’ house and the winery.

Because of the small scale of the equipment Morlet uses, he plans to install the crush equipment in the cave; it won’t need a high ceiling like larger operations do. They plan to age their wines in the cave; for now a portion of those barrels are in a rented facility.

Luc suggested the idea for a sorter to Ed Barr of P&L specialties, helped with development and received a finished Le Trieur sorter for his help. Morlet also does additional sorting. He transfers grapes to tanks using gravity with a tilting adapter he developed for a forklift.

Because Morlet had acquired the equipment he needed, his only purchases for the new winery were the forklift and a scale. He already had a bladder press for whites and a basket press for reds, along with other equipment.

Crush time
Morlet picks grapes at physiological maturity by t aste, and all fruit is harvested at night or early in the morning. The small bins are stacked, wrapped and kept cold, and they use a refrigerated truck (which the winery owns) to transport the fruit to the winery.

The clusters for white wines go through sorting, into a bladder press and then into French oak barrels. The red grapes are triple sorted—in the field, via the vibrating sorting table, then by hand before being fermented in the open-top wooden puncheons or small stainless steel tanks before entering a basket press. All wines use natural yeast and bacteria for fermentation.

The Morlets now produce about 4,400 cases and have a permit for 20,000 gallons (8,333 cases.)

The wines largely are sold direct, but Morlet Family Vineyards has some distribution. The Morlets have typical Napa County tasting permits, which allow tasting by appointment only (it’s conducted in a corner of the first floor) and limited events.

Although the Morlets’ permit allows for almost twice the present production, they intend to stay small enough for Luc to continue to handcraft the wines as well as fully support his consulting clients. Jodie has retired from teaching to manage the winery.

The couple still has plenty to do at the winery itself, including the second phase of their project: digging the cave, landscaping and planting more vines. Coming from a family long in the wine business, Luc Morlet hopes that his young children will one day follow in his footsteps to create a wine dynasty in California like that of his family in Champagne.

Current offerings
The Morlets’ portfolio features a variety of wines. The home estate is planted with 2 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon and is the exclusive fruit source for the Morlet Estate label. They own a 6-acre vineyard on 12 acres in the foothills facing the western slopes of Mount St. Helena in Knights Valley near Calistoga. This Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard provides the fruit for their Mon Chevalier label.

They also direct the farming under long-term contracts for 12 acres of vineyards that provide the fruit for their white Bordeaux blend: La Proportion Dorée; Chardonnay: Ma Douce, Ma Princesse and Coup de Coeur; Pinot Noir: Coteaux Nobles, En Famille and Joli Coeur; Syrah: Bouquet Garni; Cabernet Sauvignon: Coeur de Vallée and Passionnément, and the Late Harvest Sémillon: Billet Doux.

LT MOG separating system 
P&L Specialties’ LT (Le Trieur) is mounted underneath or downstream from the destemmer, and this machine’s innovative design allows unripe “shot” berries, stem jacks, raisins and material other than grapes (MOG) to pass through a wedge-wire screen.

Its gentle shaking motion then allows the whole, ripe berries to easily pass onward. This technology dramatically reduces the labor required for post-destemmer sorting. Manufactured entirely from stainless steel and equipped with a speed control, Le Trieur is easy to operate, clean and allows juice to be captured.

Optional parallel screens available in 3/16-inch, 5/16-inch and 7/16-inch gaps allow winemakers to sort specifically to fruit variety and/or condition. Wineries have had repeated success sorting in a broad range from 0.25 tons per hour to 4 tons per hour. Results vary with the condition of fruit, degree of separation/sorting needed and production speed.

The LT 2+2F allows MOG separation and de-juicing at higher speeds.

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