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Grapes crushed right in the vineyard? Sonoma County winery tries something new

Winemaking hasn’t changed much over the past centuries: Grapes are harvested. The fruit is taken to the winery to be pressed. The fresh juice goes into tanks to begin fermenting and is aged. Bottling wraps up the last part of the cycle.

But out on a Napa County vineyard just north of the San Pablo Bay wetlands, a local team recently tested out a relatively new process to see if they can make better wine and potentially cut down on costs for an industry that historically been slow to adapt to new technology.

This year’s harvest gave the winemaking team at Rack & Riddle Custom Wine Services in Healdsburg a chance to test some new machinery that allowed them to press and crush the grapes in the vineyard, something only done in a few European wine regions.

The goal of the project is to get the freshest possible juice into the tanks in the least amount of time, cutting down on problems ranging from highway traffic to long wait times at the winery before the fruit can finally be processed.

The roughly 25 tons of chardonnay grapes harvested from the Thomson Vineyards on Sept. 3 will serve as the base to be fermented into sparkling wine and also help determine whether this could be a viable new technique in American winemaking.

The Rack & Riddle winemaking team works with a vineyard crew  on a new grape-crushing project during harvest for sparkling wine at the Thomson Vineyards in Napa County on Sept. 3, 2021. (Rack & Riddle)
The Rack & Riddle winemaking team works with a vineyard crew on a new grape-crushing project during harvest for sparkling wine at the Thomson Vineyards in Napa County on Sept. 3, 2021. (Rack & Riddle)

It’s not surprising Rack & Riddle played a role in the project. The company has developed a forte in recent years by producing sparkling wines for its own brand as well as for other wineries, given that making bubbly is more complicated and labor intensive because of a second fermentation. The company produces about 2.3 million cases annually, with about 670,000 cases of sparklers, said Cynthia Faust, its business development manager.

“Ultimately what we are trying to do is get better quality,” said Penelope Gadd-Coster, the former executive director of winemaking for Rack & Riddle who now consults for the winery.

One mission of the project is to make sure that the fruit does not become too oxidized, which can lead to off flavors. A larger goal, Gadd-Coster said was to separate the juice from the skins as quickly as possible prior to reaching the winery.

“When we are shipping grapes from here to Healdsburg, they are getting pretty mashed up,” said Gadd-Coster, who developed her skills early in her career at J Vineyards and Winery, known for its sparkling wine program. “This is a way we can hopefully minimize that.”

The process of reducing the hours between the pick and the press required some heavy machinery at the family-owned vineyard. That was supplied by Pellenc America Inc., a division of the French farm-equipment manufacturer that has been at the forefront developing new technology to be used in vineyards.

For example, the Pellenc tractor has attachments that can do preliminary pruning, spraying, leaf removal and harvesting to save farmers the cost of finding work crews in a tight labor environment and allowing such work to be performed more quickly. In fact, the grapes harvested last weekend were collected by a Pellenc machine, which are are becoming more common in North Coast vineyards.

The company provided two machines for the test to help it streamline operations as the grapes came into to the staging area over a five-hour period from the harvest machines.

A bin of chardonnay grapes is dumped into a gondola-like mobile tank that separates some of the initial juice from the fruit via a false bottom on the device as part of a test press at the Thomson Vineyards in Napa County on Sept. 3, 2021. (Rack & Riddle)
A bin of chardonnay grapes is dumped into a gondola-like mobile tank that separates some of the initial juice from the fruit via a false bottom on the device as part of a test press at the Thomson Vineyards in Napa County on Sept. 3, 2021. (Rack & Riddle)

The fruit was first dumped by forklift into a gondola-like mobile tank that separated some of the initial juice from the grapes via a false bottom on the device. That initial juice then was pumped over into a nearby truck with a large tanker to be later driven to Rack & Riddle’s facility, Gadd-Coster said. The first batch will be likely used for the winery’s top cuvée wine, she added.

The remaining fruit was then pumped to a mobile grape press where another free-run juicing occurred with the liquid again being pumped over to the tanker. The eventual crush by hard press provided the last segment of grape juice for the project that will allow for three different types of bottlings, she said. The tanker later in the night traveled to winery to transfer the grape juice into tanks to begin fermentation.

“At this stage … we are just trying to prove the concept to see if the interest will be there,” said Pat Abert, chief executive officer of Pellenc America, which is based in Santa Rosa. “The two main goals (are) cost reduction and ... quality.”

Costs can be lowered because trucks do not have to haul away as much material, as “hauling juice is going to be less than hauling clusters,” Abert said. He also noted that it is much safer to truck juice as opposed to grapes contained in their typical half-ton bins that are stacked on top of each other on a trailer.

That cargo can travel as far as five hours away from a winery, posing even more risks for crashes during such nighttime drives. By contrast, this new process can turn the fruit into juice in as less than 30 minutes once it is picked.

“It’s an investment to buy this equipment and make it work in the vineyard. But at the winery you don’t have to do it anymore. You are now cost shifting your labor costs over here,” Abert said.

Manveer Sandhu, director of winemaking for Rack & Riddle Custom Wine Services, (back to the photo) checks a hose that will send juice from chardonnay grapes to a tanker as part of test of pressing  fruit within a vineyard. The winemaking team conducted the test Sept. 3, 2021, at the Thomson Vineyards in Napa County. (Bill Swindell / The Press Democrat)
Manveer Sandhu, director of winemaking for Rack & Riddle Custom Wine Services, (back to the photo) checks a hose that will send juice from chardonnay grapes to a tanker as part of test of pressing fruit within a vineyard. The winemaking team conducted the test Sept. 3, 2021, at the Thomson Vineyards in Napa County. (Bill Swindell / The Press Democrat)

The option to try something new also was appealing for Jennifer Thomson, a fourth-generation member of her family’s vineyard that has been farmed on the plots since 1938.

This is not the first time Thomson has gone against the grain of simply only providing chardonnay and pinot noir grapes for sparkling wine. The Thomson vineyards have seven acres of pinot blanc grapes planted, representing about half the increasingly desireable fruit’s total acreage in Napa County.

“We are taking a chance and an opportunity to do something different that could potentially be a great source for Rack & Riddle and be a component to their program,” said Thomson.

She especially is mindful as a young farmer to be open to new technology that may have been more viewed more skeptical by earlier generations, especially given how competitive the drinks business has become.

“I have thought for some time that you spot the wave and get on that wave before everyone else is swimming for it,” Thomson said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

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