June 2017 Issue of Wines & Vines
 
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Tamber Bey Vineyards

Converted horse arena in Napa Valley provides custom-crush space and winemaking for all varieties

 
by Andrew Adams
 
 

When Barry Waitte was a student studying finance at California Polytechnic State University, he worked at a local wine shop. One day his boss opened a Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour that sparked a passion “and literally changed my life.”

Many years later, after a successful career in tech, Waitte checked out the niche sport of endurance horseback riding at the invitation of a friend. Waitte, who at the time competed in triathlons, was quickly hooked on the sport that pushes horse and rider to their respective limits.

Those two defining moments, arrived at almost by chance, would lead to Waitte not just buying two vineyards in Napa Valley but later an equestrian center that in 2013 he converted to a modern winery with the capacity to host 19 custom-crush clients and still produce more than 10,000 cases of Waitte’s own brand, Tamber Bey.

Many wineries in Napa Valley are a temple to their owners’ passions, but Waitte didn’t build an equestrian center to make wine; he just lucked out in finding one that had languished on the market until he was ready to buy a winery.

The brand had been somewhat unplanned too, as Waitte had purchased a 60-acre vineyard in Yountville and a property near Oakville in 1999, after retiring, with the goal of just being a grapegrower. A native of San Francisco, Waitte had grown up spending summers with his parents in Napa Valley. Later, as an executive with Apple (where he helped launch the Macintosh), AOL and venture capital firms, he began to collect wine during regular wine-tasting trips. When he was planning his exit from the tech industry, he wanted to join the wine world. “I decided to get into the wine business in some fashion, and what I decided to do was be a grower.” he said.

Around the same time, he also purchased his first horses to begin competing in endurance riding. A former colleague of his from Apple had competed in the sport and, curious, Waitte attended a race and was soon hooked. “Truth is I didn’t ride a horse until I was 38 years old,” he says. “When I saw this level of endurance and this partnership with the horse, I said, ‘I have to do this.’ I have to at least try.”

The larger vineyard property already supplied several established Napa Valley wineries, and Waitte thought when he planted the Oakville site he might start his own brand. Shortly after buying the properties, he met winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown, who was with Schrader Cellars and consulted for a few other clients making wine at Nicholson Ranch in Sonoma, Calif. Brown signed on to consult for Waitte and suggested they use some grapes from the larger Yountville property to get a wine program started. “He encouraged me. He said, ‘Let’s take a little fruit out of that and see what we can do,’” Waitte recalled.

An inaugural vintage of 150 cases was followed by 300 cases and 600 cases the next year, all sold through a wine club and under the Tamber Bey label. Waitte conceived the name from the names of his first two horses: Tamberena and Bayamo. He changed “Bay” to “Bey” because he didn’t want consumers thinking the winery took its name from someplace like Tampa Bay or get it confused with brands such as Cloudy Bay. “I literally named the winery while riding one of the horses, and someone was riding the other one in the vineyards,” he said. “Which is why, by the way, we created the name of the big vineyard Deux Chevaux,” or two horses.

By 2007, wine production had moved with Brown to Outpost Wines in Angwin, Calif., and Waitte realized he had to make a decision about his fast-growing wine brand. “We were now at about 2,000 cases, and we were getting too big to be at Outpost. I had to decide whether I wanted to be in the wine business or not,” he said. “You’re working your butt off but not making any money, so I had to back up and be a grower or go for it.”

With the encouragement of Brown, Waitte decided to go for it.

Production moved to The Ranch winery near St. Helena, and Waitte had plans to double the number of cases over the next few years. What had initially been just a retirement hobby was now shaping up to be a full-fledged estate wine business.

In 2010, Waitte opened a temporary “pop up” tasting room in St. Helena as he prepared to make the move to his own winery facility. He soon found a property on Tubbs Lane near Calistoga. The site was unique in that it would allow him and his wife, Jennifer Waitte, to bring together their two passions of wine and horses.

Barry Waitte first met his wife when he bought a horse from her. A fellow Cal Poly graduate, Jennifer Waitte had pursued equestrian and lifestyle journalism and was living in Texas when she met Barry Waitte. She moved to Napa and started helping with the wine brand, and today she is the winery president.

The 22-acre property called Sundance Ranch had been on the market for a few years. Originally built as a private horse ranch, the Howard Backen-designed property had been listed for sale after the death of its owner in 2010. Napa Valley was still in the hangover of the 2008 recession, so Waitte was able to close on it for less than the original asking price.

He initially envisioned a winery producing around 30,000 gallons per year—or just enough for Tamber Bey production and some growth.

However, winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown had a suggestion: Build the winery with double that capacity, and he’d bring his wine production over as Waitte’s first custom-crush client.

Waitte quickly realized the potential and benefits of a steady custom-crush revenue, so he agreed and soon went to county officials with plans for a 60,000-gallon (or 28,000-case) winery to be built beneath the expansive roof of the covered riding area. “Because of Thomas coming in and the custom-crush clients, I was able to basically finance a bigger winery and also with better toys,” Waitte said. “The day we opened we werepacked, and we have been ever since.”

The winery was designed with an eye more toward functionality than aesthetics. Situated off of Tubbs Lane, the tanks and crush pad are on the eastern half of the 15,000-square-foot structure with two sets of doors that lead to barrel rooms that can be set to different temperatures. The roof of the winery is the only original part of the structure remaining. “I gave full license when I was building the winery to Thomas and said, ‘Build this as if it were your winery,’” Waitte said. “I’m paying for it, so I have veto power, but what I found was that Thomas built a winery entirely for functionality not for aesthetics.”

The crush pad is located at the center of the ring of tanks set back-to-back with a catwalk running between them. Produced by Santa Rosa Stainless Steel, the tanks range in size from little more than 3 tons to nearly 13 tons in capacity. “Because of our custom-crush clientele and all the different fruits coming in—and because we get a lot of small lots coming in, like 2-ton and 3-ton lots—we wanted to treat those smaller lots with the same integrity as the bigger lots,” he said.

In 2012, Frederic Delivert joined Tamber Bey as winemaker, and Brown is the director of winemaking.

Grapes arrive at the winery in half-ton bins and are unloaded in a large parking area in front of the tasting room. After getting weighed on a scale, bins are dumped by a forklift into a Bucher Vaslin TR elevated conveyor that transfers clusters to an Oscillys destemmer also produced by Bucher Vaslin.

When working with Pinot Noir, Delivert said the destemmed berries are usually collected in bins and then dumped with a forklift into one of a dozen open-top tanks. Other varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon will receive another round of sorting with a Vitisort machine by Key Technology. The optical sorter was new for the 2016 harvest, and Delivert said it has already started to pay for itself in reducing overtime hours. “To me, it’s true that this is the only way to sort,” he said. “Overall it’s a huge improvement.”

The optical sorter replaced a vibratory shaker table that had been staffed by the harvest interns and a cellar worker. With the sorter, staffing for receiving and processing has been reduced to a forklift driver and second worker watching the equipment, allowing Delivert to process 4 to 5 tons per hour. Freed from hand-sorting berries, the interns can start pumpovers earlier, and everyone’s day is shorter and easier.

Destemmed and sorted berries are transferred to tanks with a Wagner monoblock pump. White wine grapes are pressed with one of two Europress bladder presses, depending on the size of the lot, and then transferred to tanks.

Delivert inoculates to begin fermentation and then manages ferments with either pumpovers or manual punchdowns. All of the Pinot ferments in open-top tanks, but Delivert said he may also put Petit Verdot and Malbec in the tanks, and those fermentations are managed with firehose pumpovers.

Waitte said even though each tank is equipped with hot and cold glycol, and the crush pad has some cutting-edge equipment such as the optical sorter, Brown wanted the winery to be run with hands-on winemaking. Each pumpover is set up individually, so someone is smelling, tasting and looking at the fermentation. Delivert and his team use Innovint winemaking software to track and manage production, but all of the winemaking is still done by hand.

The reds are also pressed in the two Europresses, and Delivert said he uses French oak for all of Tamber Bey’s wines, including about 25% new oak—although some of the Sauvignon Blanc ages in Acacia wood.

For Chardonnay, Delivert uses Vicard G7 barrels as well as Tonnellerie Saury and Damy; for Pinot Noir, he likes Tonnellerie Remond, Francois Freres Cooperage and G7.

Bordeaux wines will age in G7, Vicard, Tonnellerie Marques, Taransaud, Tonnellerie D’Aquitaine, Ermitage-Berthomieu Tonnellerie, Boswell, Saury and Ana Sélection.

While he does use several coopers, Delivert said he’s now more interested in matching specific toasts, grain size and barrel types to varieties and vineyard blocks rather than trying to find new coopers to use.

Despite being a converted building, the winery has plenty of storage space for Tamber Bey’s barrels as well as those of its clients. Split down the middle, the building offers two separate rooms that can be set to different temperatures. One room can be warmer for helping barrel fermentations or to push wines through malolactic, while the other room stays cool for élevage.

Although a relatively simple and straight-forward winery, construction was not particularly easy.

Waitte bought the property in June 2012, and after a flurry of planning and design work, his hearing for a winery-use permit and associated building permits was delayed until the spring, and he didn’t receive final approval from the county until April. That left about five months to build the winery. “No one, no one said I could do it,” Waitte said. “The county, the builders, nobody said I could do it. What I said to everybody every single day was: ‘We do not have a Plan B. We’re going to do this.’”

Waitte soon found himself acting as the general contractor, and chief among his duties was negotiating between the various subcontractors to ensure they all worked well together and remained focused on getting the winery ready for the fast-approaching harvest. On most worksites, the concrete guys, plumbers and electricians all like to do their work on their own, when no other contractors are there. Waitte added language to all their contracts that said they had to be on the site with other workers and then had to conduct nearly daily diplomacy among the varying trades to make sure everything was done quickly and correctly.

The finishing steps of the winery had to be coordinated with the latest reports from the vineyard, so Waitte could match tanks that were coming online with harvest. “I asked them, ‘What’s coming in guys? What tank do you need to go live?’” he recalled. “That was our first three weeks of production. It was crazy, but it worked.”

Waitte also had nothing but praise for Napa County officials during the process. “They were incredibly cooperative in understanding our production schedule and our construction schedule,” he said.

The winery is now at full capacity, and Waitte said he’s happy with Tamber Bey’s production at around 11,000 cases. “I’m pretty happy right at that level. We created a business model with what I call the legs of the stool: custom crush, tasting room, club and distribution,” he said. “It’s a really well-balanced model—complicated to run, but it’s not unlike you would do a stock portfolio. You’re not going to put all your investments in one stock.”

The wine is primarily sold direct to consumer through the club and tasting room, but it’s also distributed in 28 states and few international markets. Tamber Bey produces two lines of wines: a selection of popular varietals from the estate and other vineyards, and a line of higher priced wines from select vineyards.

And the property is still a horse ranch. In addition to Barry and Jennifer Waitte’s eight horses, the ranch is also home to about two-dozen horses from Sunrise Horse Rescue and the horses of Ransome Rombauer, the daughter of K.R. and Laura Rombauer of Rombauer Vineyards, who at age 18 is a Grand Prix-level jumper and winner of several national honors.

“It’s kind of a potpourri of horses,” Waitte said of the ranch, which is also home to eight rescued miniature horses.

The tasting room leads to a central courtyard that’s flanked by horse stalls on one side. When Wines & Vines visited, a table of boisterous tasters on a tour sipped wines as a few horses looked on, occasionally neighing and swishing their tails.

Waitte notes that all the furniture, including the bar, was from the pop-up tasting room he opened in 2010. It was moved to the new winery and by chance fit the room used for hospitality perfectly. That is just another example of how it all seemed to come together, even if Waitte hadn’t come to Napa with the intention of building a horse ranch and winery on the same property.

 
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