November 2017 Issue of Wines & Vines
 
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Mending Wall Winery

Custom-crush operations support new Napa Valley brand and estate

 
by Andrew Adams
 
 

The unique name of a new Napa Valley winery is neither from the owners’ last name nor dreamed up to resonate with millennial consumers or some other demographic.

“Mending Wall” is the title of a Robert Frost poem first published in 1914 and is about two neighbors who regularly meet in the spring to repair a stone wall that divides their properties. One neighbor, the narrator, wonders why they maintain such a ritual and the wall when neither owns livestock to corral and their crops don’t interfere with each other’s. The other landowner, however, is dutifully committed to the wall and the idiom: “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Just as Frost’s poem explores boundaries—both real and arbitrary—as well as collaboration and adhering to a single vision, so too are those concepts all part of the Mending Wall Winery.

The production side of the winery was finished in time for the 2014 vintage; the entire facility, which includes a tasting room for the Mending Wall brand, was complete in March 2015. In many ways, the winery is the culmination of a winemaking partnership that began at Outpost Winery in 2003, when it was purchased by Kathy and Frank Dotzler, who teamed up with winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown.

Mark Pulido and Donna Walker also are partners in Mending Wall as well as owners of an eponymous wine brand and three famed vineyards in Napa Valley. The couple also grew to know Rivers Brown while producing wine at Outpost.

As Rivers Brown’s roster of clients steadily increased over the years, the five partners expanded from Outpost to another winery and then decided to launch a new brand supported by a new custom-crush winery. That decision led to a search for property throughout Napa Valley, and Frank Dotzler said the partners eventually settled on a parcel of about 20 acres between Calistoga and St. Helena with an old but virus-riddled vineyard planted to Syrah and Petit Sirah. Those old vines have since been replaced with about 5 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc.

From the winery’s inception, the partners wanted the best winemaking facility to support Rivers Brown and his clients—as well as produce wines that would be sold under the Mending Wall label. They also did not want to have to rely on the growth of a nascent brand to pay off a new Napa Valley winery. “It never really made a whole lot of financial sense to build this grand winery and just make a couple thousand cases,” Dotzler said. “We’d build the best winery we could build and have a brand with it, but then have another component for custom crush.”

The winery was designed by architect Jessie Whitesides with Santa Rosa, Calif.-based Asquared Studios and built by the Ledcor Group. After acquiring the property, the owners met with Whiteside that summer, and construction started soon after in order to get the winery ready by fall. Because the partners were working with the same shared vision—to build something similar to Outpost—the walls of the winery went up quickly to accommodate the first harvest. “We have a state-of-the-art winery here. That needed to be perfect,” Dotzler said.

The winery has a total capacity of 60,000 gallons (or 400 tons), and while the initial priority was winemaking, the hospitality area was not an afterthought. The interior was designed by Kathy Dotzler, and the winery can accommodate 60 visitors per day by appointment. Director of hospitality Rachelle Mudaliar said the Mending Wall brand is about highlighting the best of Napa Valley through the estate vineyard as well as a few other vineyards including Tournahu near St. Helena. Current production is around 2,500 cases, and the average bottle price is $75, with nearly all production getting sold direct to consumer.

The success of the winery, however, is not dependent on the brand.

Because of Rivers Brown’s custom-crush clients, Dotzler said the partners can allow Mending Wall to grow at a sustainable pace while they secure grapes from the vineyards they want. “You can’t just make a great wine,” Mudaliar said. “Making good wine here (in Napa) happens all the time, but it’s going to take a long time to make it great.”

The winemaking team doesn’t have to wait on sales to secure the funds for new equipment, and total revenue isn’t affected by the vagaries of the vintage. “First and foremost we wanted a really great production facility, and then we wanted to build a brand that allowed us those flexibilities, and that’s what we can do here,” Dotzler said. “For me, no matter how much money I have or we have as a group, it still has to make sense to me. This isn’t necessarily about making money. It’s about being responsible.”

The winery is home to about 15 clients, and Dotzler said they were at capacity from day one and aren’t looking for any new business. In terms of production, about 80% of the wine made at the winery is for clients. And while it may be where other wine brands are produced, there is a definitive wall between them and the Mending Wall brand. “We don’t do anyone else’s marketing,” Dotzler said. “It’s about the Mending Wall brand, and we don’t want to confuse those things.”

Custom crush also operates rather differently than at most other facilities. All of the clients come through Rivers Brown and are handpicked by the winemaker, who also manages the wines from vineyard through bottling. “The way it works is the team here, Thomas and the team literally ride reign over the vineyard. they decide when to prune and pick and all of that,” Dotzler said.

It’s not cheap, and the clients cede significant control, but they are assured of Rivers Brown’s talent as a winemaker and that winemaking is supported by top-notch facilities and equipment.

While everyone has the same commitment to quality, winemaking is kept behind the walls of Rivers Brown and his staff.

Managing day-to-day winemaking at Mending Wall is assistant winemaker Tim Beranek, who gained an appreciation for wine and a passion for Pinot Noir while working as a golf pro at clubs in his native Minnesota and Southern California. In 2010, Beranek secured a harvest internship at Kosta Browne Wines in Sonoma County, and that led to an internship at Outpost, where he would become cellar master. “Everyone’s deep interest and only focus is making the best wine they can,” he said of working at Mending Wall.

The winery is located alongside Silverado Drive, and the drive leading up to Mending Wall provides a view from the road, through a large breezeway that bisects the production area, to the mountains behind the building.

Grapes arrive on trucks that drive around to the rear of the winery, where half-ton MacroBins are unloaded and weighed before being brought to the breezeway that serves as the covered crush pad. “The winery was built for functionality. So this huge breezeway, as we call it, is our crush pad, and I couldn’t think of a better way to do it,” Beranek said.

A cold barrel room provides extra room in case some grapes need to wait for processing because of weather or other harvest challenges. “One thing we learned at Outpost is that it’s great to have lots of options,” Dotzler said. “You never really know what’s going to happen.”

Because Rivers Brown and his clients are working with some of the best vineyards and vineyard crews in Napa, Beranek said the grapes come in exceptionally clean and require little to no cluster sorting. Bins are dumped into a hopper that feeds an elevated conveyor by P&L Specialties that empties into a Bucher Vaslin Delta Oscillys destemmer that sends berries to a Key Vitisort optical sorter.

The destemmed and sorted berries are then moved to tanks with a Moyno progressive cavity pump via a 3-inch must line that empties through the top hatch of each tank.

Mending Wall and the custom-crush clients don’t necessarily have assigned tanks, but because Rivers Brown oversees everything, winemaking decisions aren’t rushed because of logistics or needing to turn tanks. The winery also has the capacity and tank space to handle many small lots from different vineyards or individual vineyard blocks.

“We work with a lot of small, high-end vineyards with very small blocks, and we keep everything separate; that’s why we have all of these small tanks,” Beranek said.

All of the winery’s 39 stainless steel tanks are from Santa Rosa Stainless Steel and range in capacity from 1,000 gallons to 2,500 gallons. Each of the tanks are fully jacketed and have individual hot and cold glycol hookups. Heating and cooling the tanks is controlled by a VinWizard system that Beranek can control and monitor from his desktop, a tablet or smartphone.

n addition to the VinWizard system, the winemaking team uses InnoVint winemaking software to generate work orders, track lab analysis and also generate harvest weight tags. “It’s great because it’s in the cloud, so Frank can look at it from anywhere, Thomas can look at it from anywhere,” Beranek said.

The winemaking offices also have space for a few pieces of lab equipment including a spectrometer and free sulfur machine.

Unlike other new wineries in Napa Valley, the tanks do not have their own dedicated pumpover systems because Rivers Brown and his team prefer the more laborious process of setting up each pumpover by hand. “We want to smell the wines and touch the wines and see how they’re doing every day during fermentation,” Beranek said.

That constant sensory evaluation also plays a major role in press decisions. Beranek said Rivers Brown often prefers to press reds a little sweet and let the wines finish in barrel. That decision is based on the vineyard, vintage and how the wine is tasting and smelling. “It’s based on taste,” Beranek said. “Every day (Rivers Brown) comes by, and we taste tanks and he says, ‘Let’s press that.’”

Pumpovers are usually done with an air pump supplied by Wagner Process Equipment. Carlsen & Associates supplied the Waukesha pumps for more gentle transfers or rackings.

The winery is equipped with two membrane presses (a Sutter ESPC 35 and Europress) that are used interchangeably for white or red wines.

Two barrel rooms offer two different temperatures, so freshly pressed reds or fermenting whites can be stored warmer than wine resting through extended aging.

Behind the winery are two large water tanks. One is filled with well water for fire suppression, and the other gets filled with winery wastewater that has been treated with a Lyve system is then used for irrigation.


 

 
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