March 2015 Issue of Wines & Vines
 
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Technical Spotlight: Lazy Creek Vineyards

 
by Andrew Adams
 
 
Lazy Creek Winery
 
The new Lazy Creek Winery building was completed in 2013 and currently produces 6,500 cases.
Standing outside the old wood winery in Philo, Calif., that used to house Lazy Creek Vineyards, winemaker Christy Griffith Ackerman recalls visiting the estate when it was owned and operated by the husband-and-wife team of Josh and Mary Beth Chandler.

Ackerman remembers a simple tasting bar attached to the rustic winery that had space for a few stainless steel tanks, some barrels and the large, oak oval fermentation and aging tanks that had been installed by the original owners who immigrated to the United States from Switzerland.

The Chandlers and a partner had purchased it from the founders, Theresia and Hans Kobler, in the late 1990s. The Koblers purchased the Mendocino County property in 1969 and established the vineyard with Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir a few years later. When the Chandlers took over, they maintained the winery’s rustic vibe and limited production before selling the property in 2008 to Don and Rhonda Carano, the owners and founders of Ferrari-Carano Vineyards & Winery, which is based in nearby Sonoma County.

Today, the old wooden winery still stands, but Ackerman manages a modern winery equipped for the production of small-lot, premium Pinot Noir wines bottled under both the Ferrari-Carano and Lazy Creek labels. The new facility is shaped like an “L” and wraps around the original winery, with the long part of the “L” housing the fermentation cellar, wine lab and offices; the short part contains a warehouse, bottling area and tasting room. Construction on the winery lasted through 2012, and during that year’s harvest the Lazy Creek wines were made at Ferrari-Carano’s red wine-focused Mountain Winery near Geyserville, Calif.

The first vintage for the new winery came in 2013, and Ackerman said everything has run smooth since the start. “It was amazing,” she said, “2013 and 2014 have worked out perfectly.”

Ackerman helped design the winery. She said she and the Caranos went through several plans and had to make the pivotal decision about a tasting room. “I think ultimately what led us to this (design) was cost, and we were also debating whether to build a tasting room,” she said. “When that was decided yes, we were going to, this whole thing—this L-shaped building—made sense.”

    THE CHALLENGE
     

    After purchasing Lazy Creek Vineyards estate in Anderson Valley, owners Don and Rhonda Carano sought to build a new winery to produce premium Pinot Noir. The new winery required the equipment and infrastructure to support quality winemaking in a relatively remote location while also meeting the planned budget.


From ranch to vineyard
The Koblers purchased the property from the Pinoli family, who homesteaded the site and grew plums and other orchard crops on the small ranch that now includes a 41-acre vineyard. Several of the original buildings including the Pinoli family home had been incorporated into use for the winery when it was owned by the Koblers and Chandlers, but all operations are now conducted within the new building and cave. Ackerman said she sometimes stays in the farmhouse during the hectic days of harvest, and the old winery is used as a shop and for some equipment storage.

Before selling the winery, the Chandlers had built a stone and timber structure for a new fermentation area and had started on the entrance of a barrel cave. The Caranos opted to use that structure to house a few stainless steel tanks for storage and blending, and placed the cave entrance opposite the crush pad, which is located behind the new winery. A sturdy awning supported by steel girders stretches from the new building to the cave entrance to provide shade and protection from the elements during harvest.

Ackerman said all of the grapes are picked by hand, generally in the cool hours before dawn. Ferrari-Carano owns more than 1,700 acres of vineyards, and all are managed through the company’s own viticulture team headed up by director of vineyard operations Steve Domenichelli. During harvest, the vineyard crews erect sorting stations in the field, where the grapes undergo a thorough sorting.

Field sorting, followed by machine sorting
Harvested grapes are delivered in half-ton MacroBins via tractors or flatbed trucks directly from the vineyard. A forklift operator dumps the bins into a stainless steel hopper that feeds an escalator, which leads to a Pellenc Selectiv’ Process Winery destemmer and sorter. Ackerman said the Pellenc represents a major investment in ensuring grape quality and allows for the fermentation of clean, destemmed whole berries. “Once you get it dialed in, it’s like black marbles,” she said of the processed grapes and noted she rarely does any hand sorting on the crush pad.

Destemmed and sorted grapes fall from the Pellenc into half-ton bins. The bins are moved by forklift to the nearby fermentation room and dumped into tanks with a bin dumper. The fermentation cellar contains 26 open-top Westec tanks that range in capacity from 2 tons to 6 tons. The building is accessible via several large, roll-up doors and offers plenty of room for forklifts.

All of the larger tanks are equipped with cooling jackets, and the must undergoes a three-day cold soak. Ackerman said she prefers to ferment with the tanks set around 75° F to ensure the total tank volume temperature is below 90° F. Fermentation is initiated by inoculating with yeast.

She said the improved grape-processing technology is the biggest change to the winemaking style at Lazy Creek. The whole-berry fermentations yield a more expressive, fruity Pinot that is still held in balance by the grapes’ abundant tannins. Because she’s working with whole berries, Ackerman said she’s experimented with adding back a portion of the grape stems, but in the cool Anderson Valley the stems are typically too green. “I just found that they don’t really need it,” she said of the Lazy Creek Pinots. “If anything, we’re managing tannin up here and dealing with it through blending.”

The fermentation tanks are arranged in two long rows separated by a catwalk, which provides access to each of the tanks for punch downs. Each tank receives a punch down between one and three times per day, with a pneumatic punch-down device that’s set on a U-shaped steel rail above the tanks. Ackerman said she’s thinking of installing a second device, because at the height of harvest it’s almost time to start the second round of punch downs when the first gets finished.

A fully equipped lab provides Ackerman with real-time analysis, which is a luxury in the fairly remote Anderson Valley. “This is really nice; a lot of people don’t have this out here,” she said.

Once dry, the Pinot Noir must is pressed with a Bucher Vaslin JLB basket press, which is a hand-me-down from the Ferrari-Carano red wine winery. “You can press about 4 to 5 tons in there at a time, so it works out just great for our size lots,” she said.

Ackerman said most of the Lazy Creek vineyard designate wines are free-run with a small portion of press wine added back during blending. Most of the press-run wine is designated for the winery’s second label, Lazy Day, which is priced around $20. The Lazy Creek Vineyard Pinot Noirs retail for around $50. “A lot of our press stuff will go into that, you know, just some young lots that aren’t quite making the main blend just yet,” she said.

Still, a 100% Anderson Valley Pinot for less than $30 is not a tough sell. “People absolutely love that stuff,” she said.

Ackerman only uses French oak and, depending on the vintage, about 30% to 50% is new versus neutral. She said she sources from 12 to 15 different coopers and didn’t want to call out any few coopers in particular. In 2011 she said she used a bit more new oak to help build the wine and lengthen the mid palate. “All the oak I use, nothing is really heavy-handed; it’s just complementary.”

The cave at Lazy Creek Vineyards is 4,500 square feet and consists of one main tunnel that leads from the entrance adjacent to the crush pad to another entrance in a hillside vineyard that’s opposite the winery parking lot and tasting room. At full capacity, the cave can house 750 barrels, which are stacked three high and arranged in single stacks along both sides of the cave. Ackerman said the barrels are filled and racked out on the crush pad, but the layout inside the cave allows for topping and sampling. “We stack them this way so we can run a forklift up and down the aisle,” she said. “You can’t turn it around, but you can run it up and down the aisle and then pull everything out with a pallet jack.”

Both ends of the cave feature large wood doors that were built with timber from an estate vineyard. “They’re made from redwood trees that were already felled on our SkyHigh Ranch,” Ackerman said. “They used to do some logging up there, and there was this huge redwood, and so we had them milled and they’re beautiful solid wood doors.”

Throughout the history of Lazy Creek Vineyards, the winery has earned critical and commercial success with its dry Gewurztraminer. The estate is still home to a small Gewurztraminer vineyard of 2.5 acres, and it’s the only white wine the winery makes. The Gewurztraminer is destemmed, crushed and left on the skins for about five hours or more before being pressed with an old Coquard membrane press that was used by the previous owners. Ackerman said she prefers the basket press and only uses the Coquard for the Gewurztraminer and the rosé of Pinot Noir.

The pressed juice is settled in a stainless steel tank before being racked to another tank for fermentation. The Gewurztraminer never touches oak. “We will always make Gewurztraminer,” Ackerman said. “It grows very well in this area, and it is what put Lazy Creek on the map when the winery was first started.”

In-house bottling provides flexibility
One of the first purchases Ackerman made when she took over the winemaking duties at Lazy Creek was a new GAI monoblock filler, which is somewhat unique for a small boutique Pinot winery, as most are typically serviced by a mobile bottler. Ackerman said she looked into working with a mobile provider, but part of the winery’s charm is one of the drawbacks of the estate.

To get to the winery, one turns off Highway 128, which bisects Anderson Valley, onto a small dirt and gravel road that passes beneath towering redwood trees and crosses a creek three times over small wooden bridges. It’s a beautiful little route, especially because one emerges from the redwood grove and is treated to a view of the winery and estate vineyards. That little road is an easement through other properties not owned by the winery, and the bridges can’t accommodate large trucks or a mobile bottling rig.

Ackerman also prefers the flexibility of being able to bottle as soon as a wine is OK’d for release. “Everything that we bottle is approved by the Caranos; they taste everything,” she said. “We come to them with what we think is a preliminary blend, and everything gets approved by them, and they’re busy people.”

In addition to the filler, the winery also is equipped with a GAI labeler and capper.

Lazy Creek currently produces 2,200 cases of the Lazy Creek Vineyards estate Pinot Noir as well as 300 to 800 cases of the Ferrari-Carano Middle Ridge and Sky High Ranch vineyard designates as well as about 3,500 cases of a Ferrari-Carano Anderson Valley Pinot Noir. Most of the Lazy Creek wine is sold through the tasting room and wine club, and a small amount is distributed through the Ferrari-Carano network.

Ackerman is a graduate of California State University, Fresno, and she chose that program because it offered the chance to gain practical experience in the cellar. “I chose Fresno State because I wanted a hands-on experience,” she said. “I liked that students were working in the winery, making the wines, and that wines were bottled and sold commercially.”

After working at Jordan Vineyard & Winery in Healdsburg, Calif., Ackerman joined Ferrari-Carano as an associate winemaker in 2006, when the Caranos were looking to expand their Pinot Noir portfolio and had focused on Anderson Valley. They purchased fruit from the Sky High Ranch in 2006 and liked it so much they began to look for opportunities to acquire vineyards. Buying grapes was proving to be a challenge, and “eventually Don (Carano) was able to buy it, and he really liked Anderson Pinot Noir, so we wanted to get more out here,” Ackerman said.

Once the Caranos purchased the winery, they appointed Ackerman as winemaker. “I love what I do, and really enjoy working for the Caranos,” she said. “They are extremely dedicated to making the best wines from each region they grow grapes in, and they allow me to help them achieve that goal.”

The purchase of Sky High and its 23 acres of Pinot Noir in 2007 was followed by the acquisition of Lazy Creek and its nearly 50 acres of vines in 2008 and then the purchase of the 25-acre Middleridge Vineyard in 2012. The Caranos built the winery to ensure quality winemaking but also to handle all their new Pinot Noir acreage. “They saw the uniqueness in the land here,” Ackerman said. “It wasn’t in the facility, it was the land and the plantings.”

Located in what’s known as “the deep end” of the Anderson Valley, Ackerman said the Lazy Creek estate is situated in one of the coolest parts of the region. The area receives a strong marine influence that results in cool evenings and foggy mornings; yet because of the area’s geography, temperatures can change by 40° to 50° F during the course of a day. “This allows for good acid retention but still gets warm enough for ripening and flavor development,” Ackerman said. “We have several different clones, and each block has a different exposure to sun, wind and temperature. Because each block is unique, I ferment each separately, which allows us to ‘dial in’ growing techniques for each block and gives great complexity in our wines.”

Lazy Creek, from which the estate takes its name, runs through the property, and an old stone dam creates a small pond for frost protection. Above that pond are hillside vineyards that Ackerman said were the first plantings of Pinot Noir vines in Anderson Valley. The vines there today, grafted from cuttings of the original vines, represent the estate’s continuing and evolving story, which is now in its third chapter.

 
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