Alpen Cellars Builds Its Own Grid

Remote Northern California winery powered by creek waters

by Jane Firstenfeld
At about 2,700 feet in elevation, the vineyard at Alpen Cellars is one of California’s highest.
Trinity Center, Calif.—When Mother Nature knocks out the energy grid during or after a hurricane, tornado or “super storm”, even wineries that generate all or part of their power requirements via solar or wind installations are left out of luck and in the dark. While they save money by selling their excess production to the power company at peak times, most have no way to bank those kilowatts when the power lines go down for hours, days, even weeks. Wineries can lose product when they cannot control fermentation or storage temperatures, and even the hardiest tourists won’t be trekking to unlit, unheated, unrefrigerated tasting rooms.

Alpen Cellars, in the northern extreme of California near the Oregon border, is 10 rugged miles from the grid, but never without power. Winemaker Keith Groves, who owns the 4,500-case winery with his wife and parents, originally planned only to grow winegrapes on the 300-acre property. When he investigated bringing in power to start a winery in 1984, he was told it would cost him $6 million. “And after that, we’d then get power bills every month,” he commented.

Groves said that Trinity County was California’s second-most populated during the Gold Rush era; his little valley had power lines about 100 years ago, but during the Depression, when the Central Valley Water Project dammed rivers to create Shasta, Oroville and Trinity lakes, the lines were removed. Trinity Lake’s west side, accessible by State Highway 3, has power, marinas and tourism. The county is home to six wineries, according to WinesVinesDATA. Alpen Cellars, northeast of the lake, has neither power nor easy access. Its tasting room, open from Memorial through Labor Days (and otherwise by appointment), draws only about 3,000-4,000 visitors yearly.

Yet the winery functions smoothly all year, thanks to China Creek, the east fork of the Trinity River. “We are above the dam, and it’s still a wild river,” Groves said. “We have an enormous amount of water. If we lived in Sonoma, we’d be very wealthy.”

Hardly powerless
After being priced off the grid, Groves, a graduate in enology from Fresno State University, consulted with a local alternative energy company. Its experts measured the amount of gallons flowing in the creek, and the amount of “fall” to determine what equipment he needed to power both the winery and the family’s separate homes in the valley.

“I installed it all,” he said. “It’s a Trinity County trait: Jack of all trades, master of none.” The rushing creek water is diverted by a small 1-foot dam (or weir) through pipes to a turbine that generates 3-phase power. "At max, we get 3.5 kilowatts of power," Groves said. This is converted to DC stored in battery banks, and 110, 220 or 3-phase AC power accessed through regular sockets, “Same as a regular house,” Groves explained.

He claimed not to recall the amount he’s invested in the system. “It’s been a slow process of upgrading over the years,” Groves said. “About five years ago, we put in new turbines and new pipeline.”

One of the real beauties of the system is that, although it employs running fresh water, it doesn’t actually use any. The water is cooled by the turbines and underground pipes before returning to the creek.

Using the system does demand discipline and energy conservation. “We operate on what we produce. You have to make yourself produce a surplus and manage your power loads to match the power available,” Groves said. “Most of the time we have excess power, which goes into water heaters.”

There are abundant springs on the property, producing about 10 gallons per minute. “We don’t even use all that,” he said. The winery operates on gravity feed, and the fresh water comes out at about 55°F, which circulates through cooling jackets on the outdoor fermentation tanks.

Grapes and business thrive

At about 2,700 feet in elevation, Alpen is one of California’s higher vineyards, and this week already has a couple of inches of snow on the ground. Groves said he’s expecting a two-foot fall this weekend.

It is an excellent location for vineyards, according to Groves, who toiled weekends developing the vineyard for 20-some years while working for Sonoma County’s Korbel and Napa County’s Round Hill. Although the air temperature may drop to 15°F, his vines are almost always blanketed by snow, which keeps them at a healthful 32°F. Unfortunately, warm November temperatures don’t allow him to produce ice wine: Grapes rot and fall before they freeze.

On the other hand, mildew problems are virtually nonexistent, and he sprays only twice per year, vs. as many as eight times annually in a typical Napa Valley vineyard. Although the vineyards are not certified sustainable, organic or Biodynamic, Groves is an advocate of minimal interference in the vineyard.

He grows Riesling, Chardonnay, Merlot and Gewürztraminer on about 16 acres, selling about 20% DTC and the majority at Northern California retailers, including Costco and Safeway, with distribution as far south as Santa Cruz.

With house boating and fishing popular summer recreation on Trinity Lake, Groves has been known to pick up float-in tasters at the nearest dock. “One lady had never ridden in the back of a pick-up truck before,” he recalled. “It was like she was on safari.”

“You go to school, learn to make a business plan, and all’s good until the first change in plan,” Groves said. His business is profitable, in fact, “The only place I’ve ever made money.

“Water is the key, but to be off the grid, you have to use less energy. Most people don’t know how to do that. We’re 50 years behind the times, and 50 years ahead.”

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