June 2018 Issue of Wines & Vines

Ferrari-Carano Red Wine Production Facilities

Hilltop wineries offer multiple options for processing red grapes

by Andrew Adams

"So, three crush pads are what we have now," says winemaker Rebecka Deike as she walked past one of those new crush pads at Ferrari-Carano Vineyards & Winery's red winemaking facilities near Geyserville, Calif.

Deike provided Wines & Vines a tour of the company's latest investment in winemaking, just as the buds on the nearby Cabernet Sauvignon vines were beginning to emerge from dormancy. It was a sunny, beautiful spring day with temperatures nudging past 70° F, but as Deike spoke about improvements to the facilities, a semi cab hauling a flatbed trailer carrying two tracked tractors with spray rigs rumbled by in preparation for the "atmospheric river" that had been (accurately) predicted to dump several inches of rain and bring humid conditions to the North Coast.

Those new buds would need a spray to keep mildew at bay in the estate vineyards, planted mainly to red varieties that are processed and fermented at the hilltop winery.       

One of the new crush pads at the winery was designed and outfitted by P&L Specialties and features a Heco-Pacific 7.5 ton gantry crane to off-load grapes brought in by gondola bins into a P&L Specialties receiving hopper and cleated incline conveyor emptying into a Puleo Vega 50 destemmer from Carlsen & Associates.      

The other new crush pad is much smaller, operates more slowly and is a result of another notable change at the winery, founded by attorney and casino developer Don Carano and his wife, Rhonda, in 1981. In the summer of 2017, consulting winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown signed on to bring his expertise and magic touch to the winery's Cabernet Sauvignon program.       

Deike said she thought Brown would want to use the older but somewhat gentler crush pad that replicates a gravity-fed approach to processing but at a large scale. Instead, she said, he walked into the new winery and fell in love with the new small-lot tanks that left space for more rigorous sorting with an optical sorter.

Two estate wineries in Sonoma County
Red and white winemaking at Ferrari-Carano have been split since 2004, when the red-wine operation opened in an estate vineyard of about 250 acres. The vineyard is near the top of a hill on the northeast side of the Alexander Valley above the River Rock Casino. White winemaking is done at the original winery and tasting room at the north end of the Dry Creek Valley. Deike also joined the winery in 2004 as enologist after internships at other wineries. She was promoted to assistant winemaker in 2006 and associate winemaker in 2014.

Sarah Quider, who has worked at Ferrari-Carano since 1995, is the company's executive winemaker and oversees all production, including Pinot Noir at the Lazy Creek Vineyards winery in Anderson Valley under the day-to-day management of Christy Ackerman.

More significant than any of the new facilities or changes to the winemaking team was the death of Don Carano in October of 2017. Carano was 85 when he died at his home in Reno, Nev., and left behind a long list of business and personal accomplishments as well as five children, 11 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. 

Carano was a former U.S. Army officer and an attorney who founded the Eldorado Hotel and Casino in Reno before he and his wife fell in love with Northern California's wine country. Described in a Nevada newspaper obituary as "probably the most upwardly mobile individual in the history of 'The Biggest Little City,'" Carano's larger-than-life personality can still be seen in the near-reverence with which his winemaking staff speaks of him.

All hands remember his zeal for finding new vineyards and passion for maintaining them. Even during the 2017 vintage when Carano's health was in decline, he regularly drove around his expansive vineyard holdings with director of vineyard operations Steve Domenichelli, who has worked for Ferrari-Carano since 1987.

That focus on the vineyard side also helped spark the relationship between the Caranos and Brown. He is working closely with Domenichelli at select vineyard blocks in Alexander Valley and Knights Valley, including the Maacama Ranch, Don Carano's last vineyard acquisition. Ferrari-Carano now owns 1,900 acres of vineyards spread over 24 sites in six AVAs.

Deike said she is excited to be working with Brown and eager to share winemaking notes on the estate vineyards. "For me it's really a bonus to get to work with him and to see what he really focuses on," she said.

Flexibility and focus
Deike said she followed his recommendation and purchased a new VitiSort optical sorter from Key Technology to process grapes after destemming. Grapes are dumped on a vibrating sorting table where any leaves or other MOG is removed prior to flowing through the destemmer.

Brown also chose a VitiSort for the Mending Wall winery that he designed and equipped in time for the 2014 harvest. Brown is a part owner of the exclusive custom-crush facility in St. Helena.

Deike said she thought Ferrari-Carano might need two of the optical sorters, but one proved sufficient with a throughput rate of about 5 tons per hour. She said her crush-pad team really enjoyed working with the machine, and the results were immediate. "Everything comes out looking so perfect," she said.

Destemmed and sorted berries are collected in a hopper feeding a large Waukesha pump that transfers them to tanks. The new winery is equipped with 40 new Westrac stainless-steel tanks that hold 5 to 30 tons. Pumpovers are done by air pumps through a screen and sump, and tank temperatures are monitored and managed via a TankNet system.

When fermentation is complete, the pomace is dug out into bins that are dumped into a portable, cleated incline conveyor from P&L Specialties. The conveyor dumps into a Willmes membrane press. P&L Specialties also designed and fabricated a series of cast-in-slab waste augers to remove pressed pomace and stems.

Half of the cellar is left empty to be used as a cold room for grapes awaiting processing. The 40,000-square-foot building also houses two warehouses that Ferrari-Carano is using for all its case-goods storage. The winery previously had been renting warehouse space.

The new winery might have the latest in tanks and processing equipment (as well as motion-sensor lights that turn on when anyone walks into the building), but the older winery is by no means less impressive.


Large-scale, gravity-fed system
On the crush pad of that facility are two Pellenc Winery Selectiv' L destemmers that have been rigged to work off of one shaker table to reach a process rate of up to 30 tons per hour. The destemmed berries then are carried into the cellar via an elevated conveyor that feeds one of the more unusual grape-processing systems.

Inside the cellar, several banks of stainless-steel tanks are arrayed in a half-circle. Above the tank tops is a large swinging arm set on a track, like a minute hand on half of a clock face. Grapes flow up to the swinging arm, which is equipped with a large conveyor that carries grapes to one of three openings that feed berries in through the top hatches of the tanks. The swinging arm is operated remotely and can be positioned above any tank. The multiple openings on the swinging arm allow the winemaking team to drop grapes into whichever tank is set to be filled. At the outer edge of the array of tanks is a row of oak fermentors made by Seguin Moreau and Tonnellerie Taransaud.

The swinging arm doesn't move fast, and Deike said she and the rest of the winemaking team need to be mindful of that when selecting tanks to fill so that the crush crew isn't left waiting for the electric-powered arm to move into position.

When the red-wine production facility opened, Ferrari-Carano also moved a bottling line from the original winery to the new one. That MBF Synchrofill line was bottling Merlot at a rate of around 70 bottles per minute when Wines & Vines visited the winery, and Deike pointed to a new Parker Hannifin nitrogen generator used to provide gas for dosing on the line and support other winemaking operations.

Opposite the older winery are the entrances for a cave system that was dug into the hillside when the winery was built. The caves are an intersecting grid of tunnels that provide 46,000 square feet of barrel storage, When completed, the expansion project will double the amount of available storage.

All regular barrel work such as topping and sulfur-dioxide additions are made in the caves. Cellar workers use custom-built ladders on wheels that roll along the barrel rows. The ladders loop over the top of the rows so two workers can access both sides of a row. When wines need to be racked, the barrels are moved to a large covered area between the winery and cave entrances where the crush pad for the older facility is located.       Depending on vintage, vineyard, price and variety, Deike said she uses up to 50% new oak. Almost all of that is French, complemented by a small portion of Eastern European. Deike draws from "a whole bunch of different coopers" and said that with each vintage she's evaluating toasting, stave thickness and other barrel options.

While it's perched on the top of a hill between vistas of Alexander Valley and the rugged Mayacamas Mountains separating Sonoma and Lake counties, the mountaintop winery is not a visitors' attraction. Wholly dedicated to production, it houses no administrative or sales offices, or tasting room nor is it permitted to host events. "We don't even get mail delivered here," Deike said. "We have to go down to the estate winery every day to get our mail."

The views might go unappreciated by visiting tourists, but Deike and the winemaking team appreciate more space, new equipment and multiple crush pads to handle small and large grape lots.

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