By Elizabeth Hans McCrone
The first quarter is arguably one of the busiest periods in the annual cycle for winemakers and their cellar teams. But it is also an exciting opportunity to put the newest cellar tools and training to the test. During these crucial months, winemakers are engaged in the complicated practices of overseeing the progress of the current vintage, as well as readying earlier vintages for further production and bottling.
“February is a busy month,” confirms Matt Crafton, Winemaker at Chateau Montelena in the Napa Valley. “It’s the first accurate snapshot about how everything came together during the last harvest … the first time to get that retrospective. It’s a time of year I look forward to.”
Crafton and his team are in the process of testing the 2014 juice after its malolactic fermentation and taking the developing wine through its first and second racking. They’re also getting ready for the upcoming spring bottling run. Crafton reports that “barrels are everywhere” throughout the cellar.
When it comes down to creating efficiencies while engaging in these critical activities, Crafton warns that there’s “no silver bullet, no magic” about how business is conducted. But he points to three practices that have saved time, increased sanitation, and assisted Chateau Montelena in its quest for sustainable wine production.
- The conversion of bladder presses to house air. Crafton observes that doing so inflates the bags much more quickly, reducing press cycle times by anywhere from 25 to 50%.
- Steam cleaning for barrels, tanks, and bottling line equipment. Crafton says the steam breaks down titrates and wild yeast and reduces overall winery water waste.
- Sanitation with ozone. Ozone, O2 converted to O3 minus, is an unstable molecule that breaks down microbes and has a very short shelf life. As Crafton notes, “it takes care of the bacteria and yeast, and all you have left is oxygen and water.”
In neighboring Sonoma County at Francis Ford Coppola’s winery in Geyserville, Winemaker Sandy Walheim is unhesitating in her praise for the High Solids Cross Flow (HSXF) system the winery purchased in 2013 and how decisively it has improved winery operations.
According to Walheim, the winery was seeking better methods of clarifying juice and juice lees and had experimented with a demonstration trial of the HSFX unit during the 2012 harvest. She and her team were duly impressed with the system’s filtration performance, its environmental footprint, and the potential return on investment.
“Crossflow technology doesn’t require a filter media,” Walheim explains. “For final filtration it provides more clarity, strips less color, and has greater regeneration capability. The result is a higher quality wine. ”
Walheim is especially pleased that the crossflow system has replaced diatomaceous earth (DE) filtration. She points out that, among other things, DE creates inhalation hazards in the workplace that employees have to protect themselves against, which is no longer an issue.
“We now have a tool that moves us to the next level in terms of conservation, maximizing yield, and maintaining quality,” Walheim says. “Payback is one to two years, which is a good investment for a major piece of equipment.”
When queried about cellar efficiencies at Rodney Strong Vineyards in Healdsburg, Winemaker Justin Seidenfeld says while modern equipment has made a difference, he’s more impressed by a methodology developed in Japan called the “Five S Organization System.” Based on a series of Japanese words and concepts, the system can be roughly translated as:
According to Seidenfeld, the basic ideas are to sort through unnecessary items and dispose of them properly, straighten or systemize the remaining essentials, shine or properly clean and sanitize the work environment, standardize the best work practices, and be disciplined about sustaining or upholding the new systems once they are in place.
Seidenfeld calls it “the most effective practice a cellar can make.” He admits that it took a bit of a cultural shift before his team wholeheartedly adopted the plan, but he notes that it’s a huge improvement from the past when workers were actually hording pieces of equipment so they wouldn’t have to run around looking for them later.
“Every pump has a parking spot and number … so do hoses, clamps, and fittings. Every cellar has everything it needs,” Seidenfeld testifies. “The cellar is safer and cleaner … there have been no injuries since implementation.
“Of anything I can talk about, the Five S system is the one we’re most excited about.”