09.17.2008  
 

North Coast Custom Crush Sparkles

Rack & Riddle has equipment and expertise for would-be sparkling wine producers

 
by Jane Firstenfeld
 
California sparkling wine made in Mendocino
 
The starting team at Rack & Riddle: From left, production manager Lisa Kashin; VP winemaking Oded Shakked; winemaker Penelope Gadd-Coster; cellar master Tom Meeker; managing member Rebecca Faust; managing member Bruce Lundquist; facilities manager Stanley Jennings.
 
Hopland, Calif. -- A group of North Coast winemaking veterans teamed to create a massive custom crush facility in this hub of southern Mendocino County, offering a rare if not unique service to the industry: sparkling wine production.

REGION: CALIFORNIA

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Rack & Riddle
Rack & Riddle Custom Wine Services, owned by Rb Wine Associates LLC, was founded in 2007 by longtime colleagues Bruce Lundquist and Rebecca Faust. Lundquist is a former general manager for J Vineyards & Winery in Healdsburg, and Faust worked for Piper Sonoma and then at Healdsburg's Lambert Bridge Winery as CFO. Former J winemaker Oded Shakked, a partner with Lundquist in Longboard Vineyards, joined R & R as director of winemaking, and last year the facility held its first crush in a revamped wine storage warehouse. Rack & Riddle (rackandriddle.com) just completed a 50,000-square foot addition -- including a 17,000-square-foot canopied crush pad--bringing its total size to 120,000 square feet, with the equipment and capacity to produce nearly 500,000 cases of still and sparkling wine annually.

Lundquist expects that sparkling wine eventually will account for the majority of production: 50-60%. Rack & Riddle is licensed to produce its own brand, and it is making sparkling wine this year, but, Lundquist told Wines & Vines he expects to sell the lot to wineries without their own sparkling wine facilities, to be bottled under their own labels. "Our focus is on our clients," he said.

Because sparkling wine is labor-intensive, time consuming and requires special equipment and expertise, fewer than 10% of U.S. wineries produce it, according to the Wines & Vines Annual Directory. Those that do tend to be bubbly specialists. None of the West Coast custom crushers listed in the Directory advertise their sparkling wine capabilities, although Premium Wine Group in Long Island, N.Y., has done this since 2000.

Rack & Riddle has opened the door for small producers interested in expanding their lines to include sparkling wine. Joe Ramazzotti, owner with his wife Norma of 4,000-case Ramazzotti Wines in nearby Coverdale, took that step last year, committing enough of his self-grown Chardonnay grapes to make 300 cases of Blanc de Blancs. He hopes that, when ready for release, these wines will retail for about $30 and will sell through at Locals co-operative tasting room in Geyserville. To date, none of the nine wineries at Locals pours bubbly; Ramazzotti hopes his 2007 vintage will be a hit.

Primarily a grapegrower, with about 120 acres of Sonoma County vineyards, Ramazzotti has limited production facilities. For his experiment with sparkling wine, "We didn't know if they would even bother with us, because we were so small," Joe Ramazzotti said. He met the principals last year, and said that their experience helped convince him to take the leap.

California sparkling wine made in Mendocino
 
Rack & Riddle's sparkling doser adds dosage to sparkling wine.
 
Mike Loykasek, who owns Dark Horse Wines in Healdsburg and serves as a consulting winemaker for other brands including De La Montanya, operates Dark Horse under an alternating proprietorship agreement with Rack & Riddle. In contrast to Ramazzotti, he makes about 3,600 bottles of Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, and he has no intention--"not ever"--of producing sparkling wine, which he declared "sales intensive."

Loykasek said he has used other custom crush facilities and is impressed with Rack & Riddle's service and responsiveness, adding, "The facility itself is state-of-the-art: a million gallons of stainless tanks. It's almost awe-inspiring."

His winemaking client Dennis de La Montanya, owner of De La Montanya, used Rack & Riddle last year to absorb excess production. A grapegrower with 200 acres throughout Sonoma, this year he lost up to 90% of his fruit in some fields to spring frost. In order to satisfy his winery grape buyers, he decided to sell 85% of his remaining fruit and will reduce his own wine production from 5,000 cases to 3,800 destined for his wine club members, so he will not need the extra production capacity.

California sparkling wine made in Mendocino
 
Rack & Riddle is equipped with about a million gallons of stainless steel tanks.
 
Rack & Riddle now has 25 workers on staff, including winemaker Penny Gadd-Coster, cellar master Tom Meeker and production manager Lisa Kashin, all J Vineyards alumni. Its full wine lab is headed by enologist Laurie Adams. "It could be serendipity," Bruce Lindquist said, "but we've found a lot of qualified, experienced people in Mendocino County. And some who had migrated to Sonoma or Lake counties have left those jobs to avoid the commute. Having a facility just 15 minutes from Ukiah (Mendocino's county seat) has been fortuitous for us."

Lundquist pointed out that many clients maintain brick-and-mortar sites but come to Rack & Riddle to take advantage of its specialties, or if they have "a lot of something that doesn't fit."

Rebecca Faust also emphasized that, despite its location in a former warehouse, R & R does not provide case goods storage or fulfillment services. "Others are probably more proficient at that," she said.

Lundquist recalled closing on the property in April 2007, and standing "hip deep in grapes" four months later. That first vintage was high pressure for the start-up: "Unfortunately, the warehouse floors were made to store case goods, not tank weights. In one portion of the original warehouse, we had to jackhammer the floor up and pour new, reinforced concrete. Last July, we had dirt floors in part of the warehouse. Five weeks later, we had tanks sitting on new concrete."

This year, with a full harvest, "We've slowed down from 100 mph to maybe 98." New gear keeps coming in. Although Rack & Riddle already has some small riddling machines, it's awaiting delivery of several VLMs (Very Large Machines), the mechanical riddlers it will need to tend to its ultimate payload, a quarter-million cases of sparkling wine every year.
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