California Wineries Cope With Cold Snap

Freezing temperatures, power outages test Sierra Foothills vintners

by Jane Firstenfeld
oakstone ice
In the freezing weather, a natural "ice cup" formed in a bin outside Oakstone Winery. Photo: Oakstone winery
El Dorado County, Calif.—Unlike their colleagues to the north and east, California winemakers are more accustomed to dealing with drought than winter cold fronts. Even vintners in the Sierra Foothills AVAs, near the highways accessing Lake Tahoe’s popular ski resorts, can find themselves inconvenienced when snowstorms clog roads, knock down power lines and freeze pipes.

Like farmers everywhere, they cope with what nature brings them. Members of the El Dorado Winery Association, told Wines & Vines of the challenges they faced during a frigid storm last week, and how they dealt with them.

“Our 36kW three-phase generator has been a lifesaver,” said John Smith, owner/winemaker at 8,000-case Oakstone Winery Inc. in Fair Play. Smith installed the generator and a 500-gallon propane tank when building the winery in 1996. At an altitude of 2,500 feet, the property gets snow every year—sometimes four or five times. A monster storm in December 2009 knocked power out for six days.

Although it doesn’t actually heat the winery, which is partly underground, the generator is big enough to power winemaking functions: principally racking at this time of year. Nevertheless, it couldn’t prevent exterior pipes from freezing when temperatures plunged to around 20ºF this past Wednesday and Thursday. “We had to replace the outdoor plumbing,” Smith said. He replaced the pipes himself: “I do the plumbing. Winemakers have to have all these skills,” he told Wines & Vines.

Smith noted that the 33-square-mile Fair Play AVA, home to 27 wineries, has the highest average elevation among California appellations. Oakstone grows 15 varieties “from Gewürztraminer to Sangiovese” on its 57 estate acres.

Paul Bush, owner/winemaker at 12,000-case Madroña Vineyards in Camino, looked on the bright side of the not-uncommon but unpredictable cold spell.

“You take advantage of what you’re given each year,” Bush said. White wines (primarily Riesling and Chardonnay) represent 35% of his production; when the temperature drops, he rolls his 350- and 550-gallon portable tanks outside on pallet jacks overnight, to continue cold-stabilization of tartrates. For stationary tanks, there’s a chiller, “When you run that and it’s cold, it has no problem getting them nicely chilled,” he noted.

Now, however, Bush is keeping the barrel room warm enough for malolactic fermentation, using propane heaters to maintain a temperature in the 45º-55ºF range. Most of the year, solar inverters keep the winery warm, but overcast skies have put them on hold.

The bright side of dark weather
The inclement conditions have not deterred tasting room visits, he commented. “It’s been a pretty good season in terms of traffic and sales. When you have cooler weather, people seem to appreciate the coziness” of Madroña’s lodge-like tasting room and warm hearth.

The vines on the estate, first planted in 1973, also appreciate the frigid winter. “Our vines are so dormant, there is no question,” Bush said. “It’s been ideal for that.”

D.J. Latcham, operations manager at 15,000-case Latcham Vineyards and 8,000-case Granite Springs in Somerset, did run into an unusual problem at the end of 2010: It was too cold to apply pressure-sensitive labels on the outdoor bottling line.

“Normally we can get it at least warm enough, but the label glue is so sensitive,” he complained. “We have resorted to bottling ‘shiners’” without labels and hand-labeling small batches inside the winery, once the bottles have warmed up enough to accept the labels.

Winery pipes froze but didn’t crack, he said, leaving the tasting room temporarily without water. “We’re about to the point of producing wine slushies,” Latcham joked. “Everyone on the winery crew has grown beards.”

Still, he also reported normal levels of tasting room traffic. The weather, he noted, affects the entire region. “People seem to be used to it by now.” Next year, though, “I think maybe we’ll try to shift the bottling schedule.”

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