October 2011 Issue of Wines & Vines

A Bigger, Better Warehouse

Rock Wall Wine Co. pursues quality in glamour-free facility

by Tim Patterson
rock wall wine co. alameda
Barrels are stacked four high beneath Rock Wall’s towering ceilings. The winery occupies two spacious, attached rooms, each of which have large, retractable doors.
Starting a little more than three decades ago, veterinarian Kent Rosenblum made the leap from making wine at home to a tiny commercial operation, then to a slightly bigger operation and finally taking over a hulking former ship-building facility in Alameda, Calif., and making it home to one of the state’s leading line-ups of vineyard-designated Zinfandels and other small-batch, high-profile wines. In 2008, when production peaked at 250,000 cases per year, the Rosenblum brand, winery and inventory were sold to Diageo for what must have been a pretty penny. And what did the Rosenblum family do with the proceeds?

CLICK PHOTO TO PLAY VIDEO: Shauna Rosenblum discusses urban winemaking at Rock Wall Wine Co.

They leased another abandoned military facility, just down the road, and started all over again as the Rock Wall Wine Co. When I asked Shauna Rosenblum, Kent’s daughter and Rock Wall’s winemaker, why the family didn’t take the money and buy 50 acres and a mini-chateau in Sonoma, just like the glamour wineries, she said, “My parents live in Alameda, and they like their house.” And Kent Rosenblum said, “We thought the formula worked pretty well. You get a farm in Sonoma, you’re out in the country; here we’re in the middle of 10 million wine drinkers.” Simple as that.

Opened and bonded in 2008, the same year as the sale of Rosenblum Cellars to Diageo, Rock Wall occupies a leased 40,000-square-foot chunk of the former Naval Air Station Alameda, decommissioned as part of a round of base closures in 1997. The Navy still owns the property but subcontracts it to the City of Alameda as the landlord, and the lease details are handled by PM Realty. The facility is several notches less elegant than the previous Rosenblum winery, with all the charm you’d expect from an abandoned military building. But the two giant hangar spaces provide for maximum functionality and flexibility, with room for Rock Wall Wine Co., 10 alternating proprietor tenants, everybody’s tanks and barrels, plus enough left over for a couple of bowling alleys.

Rock Wall sits on a vast expanse of concrete with no vineyards in sight, and it is surrounded by equally drab, off-beige structures, not gems of wine country architecture. Local cab drivers still scratch their heads when told of the destination. But on a recent Friday night, 1,000 people managed to find their way to a sold-out Food Truck Frenzy, lubricated with Rock Wall wines, in the spacious parking lot.

Hidden benefits of repurposing
Rock Wall’s new home was built by the Navy in 1991 and used for six years to spray-paint enamel coatings on jet fighters. The legacy of that era is wide-open floor space, extremely high ceilings and massive retractable doors to the outside world, eight feet thick. The existing electrical system was more than any winery would ever need; the facility’s walls are interlaced with heating elements capable of raising the room temperature to 150°F, great for baking on enamel but not much use for winemaking. All Rock Wall needed for retrofitting was a handful of new power boxes in convenient places, a job handled by TEC Electrical, a local company.

The old painting function made one heck of a mess, so one side of the Rock Wall facility came with built-in floor drains. The only problem, according to Shauna Rosenblum, was that some of the sanitizing agents used in the winery soaked off paint flecks from the floor, sometimes clogging the drains. The solution: sand the floor back down to the cement.

The facility also came with built-in wastewater processing capacity—housed in a room ominously labeled “Toxic Wastewater Treatment System.” Changes to the plumbing needed to go from fighters to fermentations included installation of a grinding pump and were handled by another local contractor, BC Plumbing.

The final advantage stemming from the previous occupancy lies in temperature control. Because of the size of the rooms, the thickness of the walls and doors and the proximity to San Francisco Bay (a few hundred yards), the ambient temperature inside Rock Wall never goes much above or below 50°-55°F any time of the year, and the influence of the Bay also guarantees that humidity stays in range.

The one exception to this no-cost thermal regime is a cold room constructed in one corner of the winery by Refrigeration Systems.com, where cool air is circulated by big fans to accommodate cold soaks, a step all Rock Wall reds go through. Once the macro bins full of crushed grapes are ready for fermentation, they get moved outside, where harvest season temperatures run in the low 80°s. If some bins aren’t getting high enough fermentation temperatures, they are moved into direct sun; if they’re getting too hot, they’re brought inside for a while. It seems almost like cheating.

Small-batch processing
Rock Wall buys nearly all of its grapes, currently from about three-dozen growers scattered around the North and Central Coast. (Another advantage of the Bay Area location of the winery is that it is more or less in the middle of its range of grape sources.) Kent Rosenblum did establish a small vineyard in the Russian River in the early 1980s, and it supplies Rock Wall with fruit for one of its two Chardonnays. The vineyard also grows Pinot Noir, which is sold to Williams-Selyem.

For a small producer (10,000-cases), Rock Wall makes a long list of wines from a broad range of grapes, most less than 1,000 gallons per bottling. About half the SKUs and half the volume are in several vineyard-designated Zinfandels, but the line-up includes everything from Petite Sirah to a Super-Tuscan (labeled “Super-Alamedan”), from sparkling to dessert. Wine prices range from $12 to $40, with the average bottle priced in the high $20s.

The reason for the proliferation of wines, says Shauna Rosenblum, is that “grapes are fun. Keep it interesting. The more grapes you have, the more tools you have.” Shauna’s training came from years of helping out at Rosenblum, where she claims to have known how to read a refractometer at the age of 2 and to have participated in tasting and blending sessions at an age she would rather not have put in print. After a detour into ceramics and sculpture, she came back and took charge of the new winery; her father now holds the title of director of production.

Because of the size of the main processing room, the Rock Wall crush pad can be set up indoors, away from the elements. Red grapes, hopefully picked early in the morning, arrive in macro bins, get weighed and are dropped by a bin dumper onto a CMA shaking sorting table where bad clusters and foreign matter are picked off. Clusters then travel up a Euroselect elevator/destemmer from Scharfenberger, whose movable fingers knock berries off the stems. A portion of whole berries goes on the bottom of most fermentation bins; a few varieties, like Sangiovese, get a portion of whole clusters. The rest go through a Vaslin Bucher Delta E2 crusher, due to be replaced for the 2011 harvest with an E3.

Crushed fruit receives initial treatments, normally involving powdered wood tannin and color-extraction enzymes, and heads for the cold room in macro bins for a three- to four-day cold soak. Most testing of juice and, later on, finished wine goes through an Oenofoss 4010 mass spectrometry analyzer, which measures Brix, fructose, glucose, pH, TA, malic acid, YAN, NOPA and several other parameters from a single small sample.

The bins are then moved outside for a day to warm up, and then inoculated with commercial yeast. Rosenblum is fond of D 80, Rockpile, BM 4X4 and DV 10 from Lallemand/Lalvin, but she supplements these core yeasts with multiple other strains, using several for a given batch of grapes/wine. Since fermentation happens in macro bins, punch downs (lots of them) are the order of the day, including twice-daily punch downs for the up to 400 bins stacked seven-high in the cold room. The crew uses a forklift to move them around for access. Temperature control is managed by use of a forklift, too: move bins inside, move bins outside.

Pressing duties belong to a Europress Cool T34C, with a 3.5-ton capacity; for the 2011 harvest, a new 6-ton Europress P52 will come online as well.

White wines receive somewhat less extensive sorting and go immediately to whole-cluster pressing. After a short period for settling gross lees, the two Rock Wall Chardonnays are both barrel fermented, mostly with French oak, about 20% of it new, and half the barrels are put through malolactic.

Rock Wall is a barrel-oriented facility, but it has several 1,000-gallon tanks, which can be used for settling or blending, and others with fermentation capacity. Most of the tanks come from Santa Rosa Stainless, with some intriguing, one-of-a-kind vessels also purchased from the ALCO metal scrap yard in San Leandro. Eight new tanks are due from Italy this fall. Rosenblum concentrates on six cooperages for barrels: Seguin Moreau for American oak, and Ermitage, Gamba, François Frères, St. Martin and Meyrieux for French barrels. Rock Wall manages to clean all its barrels (and those of its alternating proprietors) with an old Rosenblum-legacy two-barrel washer refurbished by Process Engineers. Ozone is available through a DEL Ozine AGW-0500 system and is used mainly for tank sanitation.

Finishing things off
All the Rock Wall wines finish off with sterile crossflow filtration using a Koch 4 cartridge unit owned by Matt Smith, whose Blacksmith Cellars is one of the AP’s under the Rock Wall roof. Smith also serves as the AP liaison, helping to coordinate all the activities of 10 different labels during the crush.

The Rosenblums decided that buying their own bottling line was not cost efficient, given the size of the new venture, so bottling chores are handled through a mobile line from Gallo’s G3 Enterprises. All the wines are finished with natural corks from Portocork America; experiments some years back with synthetics were problematic, and Shauna Rosenblum says there’s “something archaic and romantic about pulling corks and unfoiling.” After launching the brand with a complicated, multi-pass paper label, Rock Wall has moved all its wines to screen-printed labels by Monvera, applied to bottles from Encore!Glass.

Managing and marketing
Besides not needing temperature control, Rock Wall manages to avoid one other common feature of winery infrastructure: bank financing. The initial launch involved some leases and lines of credit, now paid off, but current winemaking is financed by the income from wine sales.

Rock Wall uses no winery management software; when asked how she compiles all those reports to the TTB and other agencies, Rosenblum rolled out a well-stuffed file drawer in her desk. The winery website, which does a small amount of direct-to-consumer business, uses ShipCompliant software to monitor and enforce compliance on interstate sales.

Roughly half of all sales are done at the winery itself, making for a significant income stream at full retail. Rock Wall has national distribution in more than a dozen key markets and an active program of on-premise sales in California. A wine club was established a year ago, and though still quite small, it is growing fast. Wine club and web order shipments are currently handled in-house by Rock Wall staff.

Case goods are currently kept in the winery facility, but Rock Wall will soon be acquiring another 20,000 square feet of space in another part of the former base for that purpose. Shauna Rosenblum expects that total production will eventually grow to about 20,000 cases, but not likely beyond that.

New event center
One more advantage of the location at this abandoned military facility is that it has a drop-dead gorgeous view of San Francisco Bay and the city skyline rising above it (which also serves as the visual centerpiece of the winery’s screen-printed labels). This is enough to make Rock Wall an attractive site for events, even without the customary wine country vineyards. Rock Wall hosts an active series of open houses, release parties and other events, very much in the tradition that built up Rosenblum Cellars over the years.

The latest addition is a just-opened tasting room, kitchen and event center, done up with the polished wood and atmospheric lighting you’d expect of a Napa showroom—all looking out at that spectacular view. The tasting room offers several of the AP labels as well as Rock Wall’s own wines. The kitchen provides small plates for tasting room visitors but can also handle catering for much larger events. Next door is a geodesic dome, offering just enough seclusion for private parties. The new facilities were designed by Briana Williford and architect Daniel Hoy and built by Napa-based Quality Affordable Building using modular units from Mod Space.

The contrast between the high-style tasting room and the war surplus winery building couldn’t be greater, but that’s just one more piece of the charm in this leading light of urban warehouse wineries.

Tim Patterson is the author of the newly released “Home Winemaking for Dummies.” He writes about wine and makes his own in Berkeley, Calif. Years of experience as a journalist, combined with a contrarian streak, make him interested in getting to the bottom of wine stories, casting a critical eye on conventional wisdom in the process.

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