Growing & Winemaking


Going Underground in Napa

September 2012
by Tim Patterson
Pulling up to Tres Sabores Winery during the off-season, you might think your GPS has crashed again. Sure, just off Whitehall Lane in Napa there are nicely tended vineyards stretching up and down the hillside, but where’s the winery? If you scour around behind the less-than-imposing main building, you’ll find a stray carboy or two, maybe some cleaning brushes and what looks like winemaking equipment covered (barely) with a tarp—as if a home winemaker hadn’t quite finished cleaning up. You probably wouldn’t guess that this modest, mostly underground facility pumps out 3,000 cases per year of first-class Zinfandel, Cabernet, Petite Sirah, Sauvignon Blanc and a popular proprietary red blend, wines that hold their own against bottles from the edifice wineries just down the road that employ parking monitors for the bus traffic.

Owner-winemaker Julie Johnson has been in and around the Napa wine scene since the modern pioneer days (the 1970s), and she has devoted herself to Tres Sabores since 1999. Like most small producers, she wears a lot of hats—grower, winemaker, marketer, tasting room manager, resident philosopher and more—with a staff of three: one in the vineyards, one in the cellar and one utility infielder. Like most small producers, Johnson has to hustle to sell her wines, but she also still remembers the wine she never got a chance to sell: The entire inventory from her first five vintages (1999-2003) was destroyed in the Wines Central Warehouse arson fire in 2005. Johnson is happy to confer about a long list of topics, but bankers and insurance companies are not among them.

Tres Sabores could be the poster facility for “less is more”—not exactly the Napa norm. The space is minimal, the equipment is mostly used and/or re-purposed, and nothing is done just for show—unless you count the label design copied from a Oaxacan cocktail napkin as showing off. The wines themselves are not textbook Napa either, with Zinfandel as the flagship grape instead of Cabernet, and with the small-production Cabernet Sauvignon not built in the usual power-packed style. On the other hand, Johnson did splurge for several years on three additional winemakers, sharing the Zinfandel crop and producing an intriguing mixed case from a single vineyard.

The three-winemaker project (four including Johnson) is one of several layers of meaning wrapped into the Tres Sabores name. (The “Sabor” part comes from the popular Latin song “Sabor a Mi” and also refers to the winemakers.) Johnson says the three tastes are those of the vine, the terroir where the grapes are grown and the artisan touches that make the wine in the glass bring people to the table. There’s also a little nod to the Latin American workers so essential to the Napa Valley.

Talk to Johnson for a while and you’ll discover the most interesting reasons behind the smallest things.

Vineyard focus
Every winery claims it’s all about the vineyard, but with Johnson’s acreage, it rings true. The 34-acre property was purchased in 1987 by Johnson and then-husband John Williams (Frog’s Leap) for its Zinfandel vines, which were planted in 1972. The vineyard has been organically certified and dry-farmed for more than two decades; plantings now cover 12 acres, with small parcels of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah and Petit Verdot added to the original Zin over the years. Tres Sabores also grows olives, Meyer lemons and “exotic pomegranate cultivars.”

A barn on the property was converted into a small winery facility, bonded in 1989, to provide overflow capacity for Frog’s Leap. Since 1999 the vineyard and winery have been devoted to the Tres Sabores wines. Taylor-Bailey Construction updated the pint-sized crush pad area. Johnson and her new husband, Jon Engelskirger, live on the property, where Cabernet vines grow in the front yard.

The older Zinfandel vines are still on the original AXR-1 rootstock, with no phylloxera trouble in sight. Johnson’s theory is that the dry-farmed vines send their roots deep for water, beyond the zone in which phylloxera causes trouble. “If we lose a vine,” she says, “it’s from eutypa.”

A picking team could easily harvest this whole vineyard in a day, but instead Johnson picks the core Zinfandel in five or six sessions, moving up the hillside in tune with the ripening. She’s also discovered that the edges of the vineyards, which have shallower soils than the middle parts, ripen differently, so they get picked separately, too.

Sorting at harvest is just as meticulous as the choice of picking days. Johnson and her personal crew do a first pass, weeding out damaged and underripe clusters; as the regular crew brings grapes to collection bins, they get another look; finally, the grapes are picked over on a Bucher Vaslin sorting table, from which they travel up an incline to a Delta E1 destemmer-crusher, purchased used and maintained by KLR Machines. Much of Johnson’s equipment was purchased used, and she credits Vicki Mastbaum of Transition Equipment with helping locate a lot of it.

Selective crushing
Johnson employs the crusher differently depending on the grape variety. Zinfandel simply gets destemmed; punch downs break up the thin skins, and Johnson likes the addition of a small amount of carbonic maceration within the berries during fermentation. Some of the thicker skinned Petite Sirah is crushed, and some is left as whole berries. All the Cabernet gets crushed, since Johnson can’t depend on punch downs or cold soaks to get everything out of the thicker skins.

Fermentations are conducted in standard T bins, with hand punch downs. Many of the reds go through a cold-soak period for two to seven days and are then moved inside to barrel storage areas where ambient temperatures are well below 60ºF. (Johnson says she wishes she had space to move bins in and out at night to take advantage of cooler temperatures.) She is fond of wild fermentations, but when in doubt she makes use of commercial yeasts from Laffort and Lallemand, and she generally inoculates the reds with a malolactic starter culture from Laffort. In normal times, she makes little use of enzymes, oak chips or other additives beyond yeast nutrients, but in the weird and botrytis-tinged 2011 harvest season, she made use of standard industry protocols specifying additions on some suspect lots.

Manual punch downs are pretty standard, but Johnson is ea ger to show off her battery of punch down tools. Most of the tools Johnson has hanging on a large door have been given to her by friends and interns, including her favorite: a commercial-industrial potato masher that looks just like the one in your kitchen drawer—only 20 times larger. If fermentation temperatures skew low, she has a good supply of aquarium heaters on hand.

Reds end up in a Europress EHA-12, which is where the Sauvignon Blanc and a small amount of Chardonnay start with whole-cluster pressing. Tank fermentations for whites and a rosé get done in 550-gallon Metalcraft tanks with glycol jacketing, cooled and warmed as needed with the help of a multi-valve G&D “Fire and Ice” chiller/heater that arrived last year from Engineered Mechanical Systems. (The same setup handles cold stabilization chores for whites.) If necessary, larger tanks are rented at crush time.

A portion of the whites may be aged or even fermented in “previously inspired” (i.e., 12-month-old) barrels and puncheons.

Aging and finishing
Reds spend 18 months or more in barrels, nearly all French, a third to a half of them new. Like most wineries, Tres Sabores uses products from a range of cooperages; the list includes Boutes, Demptos, Billon, Tonnellerie d’Aquitaine, Alain Foquet, Sylvain and Francois Freres. About 10% of the barrel stock is American oak, most of it used for the Petite Sirah.

Tres Sabores has two barrel areas: one connected to the main office/tasting room/utility building but dug into the hillside for temperature control, and a separate cave, tunneled further up the hillside by Nordby Construction in 2002. Wines from the current vintage go under the office, which is cool enough except for the hottest summer days; wines from the previous vintage, headed to bottling, reside in the somewhat cooler and more temperature-stable cave. Both cellar areas have the ability to draw in night air for cooling.

When the cave was built, Johnson wasn’t quite happy with the temperature, but as she has planted more and more greenery on top—cover crop between vine rows, olive trees—the temperature has become more stable and a bit lower, averaging in the high 50s. Since the cellar and the cave are working areas, not simply barrel-display zones, both are home to assorted kegs, equipment parts and in the case of the cave, an “elegant hose armoire.”

Fining is not part of the standard program at Tres Sabores, but sterile filtration is. Johnson uses a cartridge filter from 3M Purification (formerly CUNO) and Gusmer cartridges, and she doesn’t think that tight filtration of her reds takes anything away. In fact, she says she has seen her share of pricey cult wines with cloudy appearance and unidentified flotsam, suggesting it would have been good if some things had been taken away. In addition, Johnson notes that she has already had to start over once due to the fire; she had just bottled her 2003 vintage when it went up in smoke, leaving her effectively out of the market for almost two years. She’s not ready to risk having a vintage go south on her just yet.

For moving wine around, Johnson has a somewhat old, less-than-satisfactory pump, and a new one is at the top of her equipment wish list. For moving barrels and bins around, she uses a Nissan propane lift serviced by Accurate Forklift.

Using ozone and Cryoclean
Sanitation tools include a McClain ozone machine and a Karcher 4.0 pressure washer for barrels. She has also been pleased with the results from having older barrels thoroughly scrubbed and refurbished through the Cryoclean system, which blasts barrel innards with dry ice crystals, removing tartrates and other gunk but not sanding off toasted oak. All used barrels get the Cryoclean treatment after purchase through their mobile service.

Tres Sabores has a small lab setup that doubles as storage space for pet food and other winery necessities. The capacity is limited to basic wine chemistry testing, though she has an Anton Paar portable density meter for checking filterability. More complex testing such as initial YAN assessment, VA, etc., gets done through either Vinquiry or ETS.

Then there are the small matters of water and power. Like many spots in the Napa Agricultural Preserve, the Tres Sabores site is not the kind of place you just plug into the local utilities and get going. Water comes from a well and flows into concrete storage tanks; some equipment runs on propane, and instead of paying Pacific Gas & Electric a hundred grand to run three-phase power onto the property, Johnson uses a Phase Technologies phase converter to provide the current her machinery requires.

Johnson seems more attached to some of her miscellaneous equipment—the “Fire and Ice” chiller, the aquarium heaters that can be plunged into bins, the rolls of reflective insulation from the hardware store that help things warm or cool and the impressive array of punch-down tools and scrubbing brushes—than to the big-footprint gear. It’s a common attitude among small-production, hands-on winemakers: Their favorite winery gizmos are the ones they bought at OSH or nailed together themselves.

Bottling and marketing
For bottling, Johnson uses a mobile line from Mill Creek Mobile Bottling Services. For the ¿Por qué no? blend (at 2,000 cases the largest single production), she brings in tanker trucks for the final blending and bottling. Bottles come from Global Package, capsules from Ramondin and corks from Ganau. The ¿Por qué no? label design is indeed based on a cocktail napkin Johnson came across during a trip to Oaxaca; the circular logo on the basic Tres Sabores label traces back to pictures of pre-Columbian bowls in Ecuador; the almost Escher-like vanishing pint image on the Perspective Cabernet Sauvignon comes from an 1880s lithograph she found at a flea market in London. Design help has come from Kathryn Havens, Patti Wessman and Jim Moon Designs. The Cabernet label gets printed by Landmark Label, many others come through Ben Franklin Press and Johnson also has used CCL Label in Portland, Ore.

The wines are a notch or two different from the mainstream Napa offerings: Tres Sabores Zins run slightly lower in alcohol than the current fashion; the Cabernet Sauvignon is more charming than muscular, and the flagship ¿Por qué no? is a one-of-a-kind blend of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sau vignon and Petit Verdot. Consequently, Johnson can’t sell her wines just because “Napa” or “Rutherford” are on the labels.

She once tried storming Manhattan by riding around town with a local sales rep and some samples on a Vespa. Not surprisingly, the real answer to how she sells her wines is direct to consumer: More than half of sales are through a wine club, web sales and tasting appointments. Like most wineries this size, Tres Sabores has trouble getting the attention of distributors, but Johnson does work with some California brokers.

Case goods are stored at the Wine Service Co-op in St. Helena, where Johnson is confident her inventory is in good hands. Through Nexternal software, orders come into Tres Sabores, get cleared through ShipCompliant and get sent out by the Wine Service Co-op. Johnson relies heavily on the temperature forecast maps provided by ShipCompliant and the Wine Service Co-op in scheduling or holding back shipments during problematic weather.

In an email follow-up to my visit to Tres Sabores, Johnson mentioned one other small “necessity” she deems crucial for Tres Sabores’ success: a bottle of  Schramsberg Crémant for toasting the harvest every year.

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