Taste rare, small-production wines at Sonoma’s custom crushing facilities

The grapes slide to the sorting table in juicy clusters, dancing and shaking on the vibrating 20-foot-long mechanized belt. Winemaker and consultant

Adam Lee of Clarice Wine Company studies the fruit as interns and friends carefully select leaves, twigs, and other unwanted hitchhikers in a ritual that marks the start of the winemaking process.

But it is a different type of cellar. It’s Sugarloaf Crush, located along Highway 12 at the western end of the Sonoma Valley, and expensive sorting and crushing equipment can be found in a leased space. Lee, known for his limited-production Pinot Noir, shares the 60,000-square-foot structure with some three dozen other customers, all making their own fine wines of small production. Think of it as a collaborative coworking space for winemakers.

“I knew Clarice’s production was going to be low – only around 600 cases a year – and that’s definitely not enough to support its own installation,” Lee said. “But I needed to make wine somewhere. Custom crush allows smaller wineries to exist, and without them many of us wouldn’t be here.

In the highly competitive world of Sonoma wines, pennies count. Wine making equipment is expensive – sorters, vats, presses and bottling lines, not to mention the square footage to house them. Thus, tailor-made grinding facilities, where small producers come together and share equipment, are of great value. Sonoma County has a long history of hosting custom crushes, ranging from the largest wineries that lease their facilities for extra income to giant businesses like Healdsburg’s Rack & Riddle, which processes more than a million cases per year for some 150 customers. .

Cristian Ortiz adds sulfur dioxide to wine barrels at the Grand Cru Custom Crush factory in Windsor. (John Burgess / Sonoma Magazine)

A godsend for wine lovers

But here’s the big news: Sonoma County’s latest custom grinding facilities now come with extra amenities that are a godsend for wine lovers: first-class tasting facilities, event spaces, and tours. Guests can see the work in action, meet one-on-one winemakers, and explore rare wines they might never have found otherwise.

Pioneers include the luxury Grand Cru in Windsor, the architecturally stunning Grapewagon Custom Crush in Healdsburg and the Sugar Loaf itself, which impresses with its large common room: a living room lined with reclaimed wood with a fireplace and furniture. in soft leather, not to mention a large entrance lawn with a majestic view of the mountains.

Working with a modern crush is now a more personal experience, says Rebecca Birdsall, who co-owns the 3,000-case Black Kite label with her husband Tom Birdsall, and was one of the first winemakers to join Grand Cru. Previously, they produced wine at the more industrial Punchdown Cellars in Santa Rosa and were happy with the experience, she said.

“But we were intrigued by the elegant design and flexibility of the Grand Cru, and the fact that we could use their tasting rooms and take our customers to the cellar and taste it in barrels.”

Certainly, a personalized crush is financially necessary for their Black Kite brand, with most wines produced in small batches ranging from around 125 to 200 cases. But Grand Cru’s individual tasting rooms, framed by modern garage-style roll-up doors, allow patrons to learn firsthand – and fall in love – with the couple’s Burgundy-style Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Windsor’s Grand Cru Custom Crush has private tasting rooms, which its wine-growing clients use to meet their guests. The wineries here include Black Kite and Maritana Vineyards. (John Burgess / Sonoma Magazine)
At Grand Cru Custom Crush in Windsor, the upper offices overlook the fermentation room. (John Burgess / Sonoma Magazine)

Cross-pollination of ideas

Winemaker Donald Patz produces 5,000 cases per year of his Maritana Vineyards Russian River Valley Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in Grand Cru. In addition to the value of being able to speak directly with his customers, he appreciates the collaboration with his fellow winegrowers and the cellar team.

“Even when it’s crowded, the staff are so good at analyzing assignments that I feel like my own fully dedicated team, with skills that I couldn’t afford on my own,” says Patz. . “And the winegrowers stick together here, so there’s a cross-pollination of ideas, which I really wanted. “

Behind-the-scenes peeks become an integral part of personalized tours, as guests experience the complicated waltz between winemakers and facility management. “There is immense communication at harvest time to optimize picking dates, available labor, grinding buffer usage, and tank and press availability,” Birdsall explains.

“The best winegrowers are far-sighted.

While Clarice’s Adam Lee, who is in high demand as a consultant, could probably operate from almost any winery he would like, he remains a fan of custom crush. He develops his new Pinot Noirs Beau Marchais at Grapewagon, wines for the Bucher cellar at Grand Cru and projects for J. Cage Cellars at Sugarloaf Crush. It’s interesting, he finds, because several winemakers collaborate, share tips and techniques. “In the heat of the harvest, sometimes it’s every man for himself, but the rest of the year, we often chat and taste together,” he said.

Clarice Wine Company winemaker Adam Lee in the large common tasting room at Pain de Sucre. (John Burgess / Sonoma Magazine)
The Sugarloaf Crush storage room has a capacity of 4,500 barrels. (John Burgess / Sonoma Magazine)
Winemaker Chris Leonard of the Leonard Wine Company on top of the heaps of barrels, sampling for a trial blend of wines. (John Burgess / Sonoma Magazine)
Jessica Yeates, winemaker for VML and Truett Hurst wineries, in the establishment’s wine lab. (John Burgess / Sonoma Magazine)

Behind the scenes sensations

Witnessing teamwork can be a rush. Flaunt Wine Company has joined Grapewagon Custom Crush for the 2019 harvest, with owner / winemaker Dianna Novy producing 250 cases of Pinot Noir Sexton Vineyard. Grapewagon owners James and Kerry MacPhail originally built the 42,000 square foot facility in 2011 for their MacPhail family wines. After selling that brand, the MacPhails changed the setup for a custom crush, serving a dozen customers including their own new label, Tongue Dancer. The facility is just 50 feet from the MacPhail family home.

“The winemakers collaborate here, and if there hadn’t been a custom crush, small wineries would be virtually non-existent,” says Novy. “There is a great camaraderie, and I think it’s because we all want to drink the best wines, so we encourage each other to do the best we can.

The Sugarloaf Crush facility is located at the base of Hood Mountain in Oakmont. (John Burgess / Sonoma Magazine)

How to taste during a personalized crush

Tastings and personalized tours are generally by appointment and often organized individually by each client of the estate.

Grand Cru Custom Crush, 1200 American Way, Windsor. 707-687-0905, grandcrucustomcrush.com. Independent wineries include Bucher Wines, Maritana Vineyards, and Black Kite Cellars.

Sugarloaf Crush, 6705 Cristo Lane, Santa Rosa. 707-244-4885, sugarloafcrush.com. Three dozen wineries including J. Cage Cellars, Leonard Wine Company, Truett-Hurst and Clarice Wine Company.

Grapewagon Custom Crush, 851 Magnolia Drive, Healdsburg. 707-433-4780. Over a dozen clients including Tongue Dancer, Flaunt Wine Company and Beau Marchais.

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