St. Helena - It All Began Here
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2929 St. Helena Highway North
Next on the itinerary was Vineyard 29 where Allen Price introduced owner Chuck McMinn at the winery. Chuck said he and his wife, Anne, bought Vineyard 29 and “Aida,” two and a half miles north, in 2000. Aida vineyard, planted in a style popular in the 1920’s has been ripped and replanted, again to Zinfandel and newly to Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot. The Vineyard 29 vineyard was developed by Paine and Norton in 1989 and planted to a Cabernet clone from the neighboring Grace Family Vineyard. Its first release, made at Grace Family, was in 1992. After six years at Grace Family, Paine and Norton custom crushed at Miner Family Vineyards, as plans for their own winery took shape. When Chuck and Anne bought Vineyard 29, they continued for two years at Miner Family as they went ahead with plans for a winery and cave. Their first release is the 2002, made when their winery was half-built. The winery was finished in 2003. Vineyard 29 now produces 14,000 cases of wine, 8,000 for Vineyard 29 and 6,000 for eight custom crush clients. Philippe Melka is the wine-maker, with five consulting winemakers. Anne McMinn oversees the landscape planting outside and Chuck oversees the plant inside the winery.
As the group moved out of the winery onto the crush pad, Chuck pointed out new Sauvignon Blanc vineyard up the hill. In the past, Vineyard 29 bought fruit from five vineyards. The first release of wine made from all their own fruit will be 2006.
Chuck said harvest was coming in 50% heavier than 2004. About 240 tons of fruit will be “done” at the winery. From half-ton bins or 60 pound lug boxes the fruit goes into a hopper as leaves, twigs or any pickers’ hats are taken out. Once through the Delta E2 destemmer (which Chuck said 10% of the wineries have), berries are sorted on a moving tabletop for raisins, shots and jacks. At the end of the table, whole berries drop into a bin. The bin goes to the top of a fermentation tank, a trap door opens and fruit falls into the tank. This avoids any pumping. Chuck prefers whole berry fermentation. It takes longer, with harder working yeast, and more color and flavor extraction. Because the E2 destemmer can handle ten tons of fruit an hour, all day, but people can’t, chiller boxes for the fruit help pace berry selection. The grapes the group saw being sorted were Cabernet Sauvignon from nearby Abbey-Luce Wines, Jerry Roland consulting winemaker.
Vineyard 29 has two fermentation rooms and three kinds of fermentation tanks: stainless, oak and cement. Oak is highly insulated, giving a gradual degree change; stainless provides rapid degree change controlled with a glycol jacket; cement is in-between the two. Chuck believes variety aids blending. (The rooms have high gloss barn red floors; an Advance floor polisher is at the ready in an alcove.)
By law, outside winemakers cannot touch anything in a winery--they only consult. A wet chemistry lab provides clients with full reports of microbiological statistics; acid, sulfur, enzymatic and ammonia levels; yeast activities. Client preference determines natural or commercial yeast use. Chuck says natural yeasts have long lag phases; fermentation is sluggish or can stick, although this is rare with a ripe Cabernet. Chuck likes commercial yeast for even fermentation. In the lab there is a clipboard and spreadsheet for each wine-maker. A unique computerized tank control system will soon be up and running. Chuck envisions every winemaker going on “Tanknet” to check the dynamics of a tank and changing the temperature or influencing Brix, TA or pH with a click.
During fermentation they usually pump over to remoisten the skins, for color and flavor. Chuck said for special lots they use a corner freight elevator to lift, empty and refill a tank. This is a longer but more gentle method. Conduits slope down to the caves from the fermentation rooms so barrel fills are by gravity, too. With red wine, after free-run has exited a fermenter, they use a computer-controlled hydraulic press to extract juice from the remaining 25% in the tank with a minimum of pressure. Neoprene mesh mats layered inside the tanks also help control pressure. Sensors manage CO2, calling on fresh air from the caves to push out CO2.
In the caves, which took ten months to dig, 800 barrels of French oak are stacked two deep. The barrels, on rollers, are filled whole fruit, either through a port or the whole top; racked five times in the first year, once in next. Emptying is either by pumping out or from the push of an inert gas. A portable bottling and labeling line, which can do 24 bottles at a time, means lots of flexibility as to when to bottle. Behind glass doors, a warmer interior barrel room is used both for malolactic fermentation and entertaining. Vineyard 29’s wine library is also here.
The final stop was a compact room above the fermentation rooms, where the winery makes all its own electricity. PG&E supplies the natural gas to power a Capstone microturbine system that also heats and cools the buildings and caves and provides for the sterilization of equipment. The winery also has its own wells and septage system. Chuck says it takes three gallons of water to make a gallon of wine. Having their own water and power systems makes them about 80% efficient. Chuck hopes they combine the best of innovative technology with traditional techniques at Vineyard 29.