By Paul Vigna
Tony Leonardini is the winemaker and partner for BNA Wine Group, makers of the rapidly growing Butternut brand, among others. The production for the thousands of cases of wine it makes uses a half-dozen custom-crush operations, so he can offer plenty of suggestions on finding a facility that fits your needs.
Still, even with his familiarity, not all the hook-ups have come from searches he has made. “I was actually in the gym one morning and I complaining to another winemaker,” Leonardini said. “He’s like, ‘You need to go talk to these people,’ and gave me the phone number. I talked to them and I’ve been with them now for years and years. So word of mouth, I would say, is one of the biggest [ways to find one]. It’s like hiring someone and doing your due diligence … calling their references.”
Identifying potential production partners these days is getting easier, thanks to a growth in facilities – primarily on the West Coast – devoted to offering wine production services and an increase in wineries that are utilizing extra space by making wine for others. Identifying the right one? That’s more of a challenge, with factors related to cost and services in addition to the “people priorities” that are crucial to any relationship.
Let’s start with some basics as you begin to shop:
- Assess the equipment it has and compare to your needs.
- Figure out which tier of service matches the cost of your wine.
- Ask questions about the protocols, both for winemaking and cleanliness.
- Get a sense of the place’s personality and flexibility, and how well it communicates, to ensure, as Long Island winemaker Richie Pisacano puts it, that your juice “isn’t getting lost in a sea of wine.”
Allowing others to handle production has worked perfectly for Leonardini, located in Napa, and his partners, permitting the business to grow without a major investment in land or a winery or staff. It’s a chance, he says, to invest in the brand rather than a building or crew, and by purchasing grapes from all over California and using crush facilities near them, it keeps BNA from “putting all our eggs in one basket.”
One key, he says, to a long-term relationship is obvious: Find people you get along with and work well with in the winery. “When you first start out [looking], you kind of think they are all the same,” he says. “but they’re not. They may be charging the same thing. But [if] you need some barrels tossed or an addition made to a tank, you want it done correctly and done in a timely manner.”
His story shared similarities with Maayan Koschitzky, an Israeli native and Screaming Eagle alumnus who in 2014 became director of winemaking for Philippe Melka at Atelier Melka and Melka Wines. He’s juggling eight custom-crush facilities. Get to know who you’re working with, he says, and make sure your winemaking approach matches theirs. “For example, if more barrel fermentation is important but the custom crush doesn’t do it, then you’re probably not in the right place,” he says.
Indeed, that would be just part of what Koschitzky referred to as knowing the facility’s wine movement, such as the number of days you can leave your wine in a tank and how often they’ll top and filter the wines, Know your basic protocol, he says, and make sure it matches the facility’s equipment and personality..
That time in the tank becomes crucial during harvest when the word “crush” also describes the experience inside the building, with winemakers scrambling to manage the process. Blair Guthrie is familiar with that drill. A New Zealand native and winemaker and vineyard manager for Stewart Cellars in Yountville, Napa County, he says knowing the agreement on fermentation time, for instance, can become paramount after the fruit is picked. “Sometimes, the fruit starts coming in and all of a sudden there’s no tank space left,” he says. “Make sure that’s something sorted out; otherwise in the middle of harvest you’ll be arguing with a facility that you thought you’d be in tank for three weeks and they’re trying to get you out in 10 days.”
Everyone interviewed noted the importance of the fit; for instance, if you’re making small lots, find a facility that utilizes small tanks, or vice versa. The same goes for the level of care and service; what you pay for producing your $20 bottle of wine won’t be nearly as comprehensive as what you’ll get for that $50 bottle of wine you’re bringing to a higher-end facility. “I could pretty much do all the work [I need to] off my laptop,” Guthrie says of the high-end operations he works with. “Another facility, where custom crush is not really their business, I am there a lot more monitoring what they are doing.”
Look for facilities that are spotless and have protocols in place for cleanliness, including obsessively cleaning and sanitizing hoses, tanks and pumps between clients. That was one tip on the list sent in by Kerith Overstreet, who oversees the winemaking for Brulium Wines LLC in Sonoma County.
Also on her priority list: Know in advance what is included with crush price. “Does this include bottling? Empty barrel storage? Is there an up-charge for wines that over-vintage in barrels? Is there a lower price for quick turnaround wines like rose?”
Some places provide a winemaker and crew while others just offer the facility for use. Again, the emphasis is on knowing what you’re getting. Leonardini notes he uses one facility just to crush and ferment, another to barrel and another just to bottle, those decisions dictated by cost, location and what each place does best. In other cases, the single facility does it all.
Says Leonardini on the process of figuring out what works best for him, “These are things that you just kind of learn over time.”
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