September 2015 Issue of Wines & Vines
 
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Rack & Riddle

Custom-crush winery grows production through split facilities and expertise in sparkling

 
by Kate Lavin
 
 
Rack and Riddle Bottling Line
 
Rack & Riddle has two bottling lines: one for still wines and one for sparkling.

Founded as a custom-crush operation for sparkling wine, Rack & Riddle had been paving a unique path since its inception in 2007. Owners Bruce Lundquist and Rebecca Faust were forced to get creative once again in 2013, when Duckhorn Vineyards purchased the site Rack & Riddle had been leasing to make wine in Hopland, Calif.

With the deal announced in August and Duckhorn hoping to move by the end of the same year, Lundquist and Faust got to work strategizing how they could be close to their fruit sources, accommodate increases in case production as well as space for wine aging and do it all before the following year’s harvest.

    KEY POINTS
     

     
  • Custom-crush winery Rack & Riddle outfitted two winemaking spaces in Sonoma County leading up to the 2014 harvest.
     
  • The move came with an unexpected benefit: increased production capacity.
     
  • Currently Rack & Riddle makes 1.2 million cases of wine per year—50% of which is sparkling, and 30% sold as shiners.

The answer came in the form of not one but three separate facilities: First, in January 2014 the group took over operation of a winery in Geyserville, Calif., from the Murphy family of Murphy-Goode winery (now owned by Jackson Family Wines). Set in the Alexander Valley of Sonoma County, the location is convenient for clients in California’s North Coast—particularly those growing the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay ubiquitous in premium sparkling wines. The winery backs up to vineyards and counts Trentadue, Clos du Bois and Stryker Sonoma among its neighbors.

Next, they outfitted a warehouse a few blocks from Healdsburg Plaza with equipment for tirage, riddling, bottling and bottle aging. Rack & Riddle moved its equipment to that location during June and July 2014—just in time for harvest. (Previously the site served as a barrel warehouse for Clos du Bois.) Lundquist calls the Healdsburg winemaking facility a 24-hour-per-day operation.

Rack & Riddle general manager Mark Garaventa said the Healdsburg property was just a shell when they acquired it, requiring a complete build-out. Extensive construction included erecting new interior walls, creating new offices, paving, installation of a new exterior tank pad, truck scale, purchasing new tanks (more on that later) and installing the bottling lines. The price for both winemaking sites came in at $8 million, with financing provided by Exchange Bank.

A third location about 1.5 miles north of the Healdsburg winery is devoted strictly to lab services and sparkling wine sitting on tirage—all of the Rack & Riddle’s sparkling wines are made in the traditional method. Garaventa said there are between two and six people working there at any given time.

All of Rack & Riddle’s employees from Hopland were offered positions at the new facilities, and Garaventa said about 80% made the move.

While overseeing 65 full-time employees and facilities at the three sites has its challenges, Lundquist said the separate winemaking areas came with a bonus: the capacity to crush an extra 1,500 tons.

Separate locations, separate capacities
“When we were in Hopland we were at 6,000-6,400 tons,” Lundquist told Wines & Vines. “Now we could do 7,500 to 8,000 tons” because the two main locations each have different—and separate—production caps set by local officials. “It’s great to have the opportunity to potentially expand,” although hitting capacity would require more tank space than is currently available.

When Rack & Riddle took over the Geyserville facility, the winery was permitted to produce about 475,500 gallons of wine per year. Expanding the adjacent leach field allowed Rack & Riddle to increase capacity at the 50,000-square-foot winery to 750,000 gallons. Meanwhile the 67,000-square-foot Healdsburg location is permitted to produce 950,000 gallons of wine per year.

Of course some clients crush their own grapes and bring their must or wine to Rack & Riddle for fermentation, tirage, bottling or all of the above.

Rack & Riddle produces around 1.2 million cases of still and sparkling wine per year; custom crush makes up about 70% of total production, and 30% are bottles sold as shiners. Factoring in bulk-to-bottle and grape-to-bottle clients, “Sparkling is starting to run closer and closer to 50%” of Rack & Riddle’s total production, Lindquist said. “At one time, sparkling was dominating.”

Lundquist and Faust both had experience in the sparkling wine business before starting Rack & Riddle: Lundquist was general manager at J Vineyards & Winery, while Faust served as CFO for Piper Sonoma, one of Rack & Riddle’s first clients.

The founding partners tapped winemaker Penny Gadd-Coster—who had eight years of experience making wine at J Vineyards and 13 years at Jordan Vineyard & Winery—to head winemaking operations at the Hopland site. Today Gadd-Coster serves as executive director of winemaking for Rack & Riddle, where she alternates between the two winery properties.

A day in the life
All wine grapes processed by Rack & Riddle go through the Geyserville facility. The 50,000-square-foot winery is the center of action during harvest, but during the off months it is a much less bustling location and used as storage for aging wine in 4,000 oak barrels.

Approximately one-third of trucks arriving with just-picked fruit dump their cargo directly into an off-street hopper from a pull-out on Highway 128. A hydraulic lift allows staff to tumble 2-ton gondolas of grapes for red table wines and whites into the hopper—or use a forklift to tip the bins’ contents inside.

For the remaining fruit, delivery trucks drive down behind the main winery building, stop at a weigh site and load whole clusters directly from the truck to the presses. Rack & Riddle employs a Bucher Vaslin 320 press, which has settings for sparkling, to press the grapes destined for still white wines and sparkling varieties. The winery destems red fruit and presses the must in one of two Diemme AR 150F presses or two Bucher Xpert 320ICS presses.

From this moment on, Rack & Riddle is following winemaking procedures set by its winery clients. “For the most part it’s not their team of people” processing the grapes, Gadd-Coster explained. “We are providing the team of people but using their protocols.”

To execute these orders on such a massive scale, Gadd-Coster has six full-time winemaking staffers on her team. “Mainly my focus is with the sparkling wines, and then we have winemakers that oversee the still wines as far as the maintenance of them, the fermentation of them, working with the clients to bring their work orders into completion,” she said.

As a result, there is no single yeast strain, malolactic bacteria supplier or aging regimen that the staff of Rack & Riddle adheres to. These decisions are made by the winery’s clients, who also choose barrel manufacturers and toast levels independent of Rack & Riddle.

Tank space
The winery has had clients produce as few as 250 cases and as many as 100,000, Lundquist said, adding, “I don’t know that we have a size restriction on biggest.”

Delegating tank space while managing such a diverse group of needs is an intricate dance for Rack & Riddle, with tanks varying in size from 500 gallons to 50,000 gallons.

“We generally know how many tons are coming in, and with that we generally know how many gallons we’re going to get out of that. So it starts from there and moves forward if lots are going to be combined or not,” Gadd-Coster said, adding that tanks designed for pumpovers and punchdowns are usually reserved for red wines and must.

At the Hopland facility, tanks of all sizes were outfitted with hydraulic pumpover systems, something Rack & Riddle is still considering at its new facilities. “We’re still in the process of changing, updating, upgrading with the move,” the winemaker said.

Rack & Riddle inherited most of the tanks at its Geyserville facility upon moving into the old Murphy Goode winery. The quantity and size of tanks purchased for the Healdsburg site were chosen based on the winery’s experience in Hopland. For example, the 6,400-gallon tanks and 13,000-gallon tanks are equivalent in size to the tanker trucks used to transport wine from Geyserville to Healdsburg.

Assembly of the company’s six 50,000-gallon tanks and dozen 25,000-gallon tanks was done onsite in Healdsburg. “The tanks are so big that you really can’t drive them down the road,” Gadd-Coster said. “It’s too wide and too long.” A team of fabricators spent weeks assembling the tanks at Rack & Riddle, stacking the stainless steel rings from Santa Rosa Stainless and Quality Stainless vertically until they reached the specified height. The tanks are wrapped in PolarClad foam and plastic insulation.

Gadd-Coster insists cleaning such a behemoth is no different from cleaning a smaller tank; it’s just on a larger scale.

And while Rack & Riddle co-owner Rebecca Faust does have a sparkling wine label sold from a tasting room at the Geyserville facility, the large tanks are reserved for major winery clients.

Breathless sparkling
Faust’s line of sparklers, Breathless Wines, is a joint operation with her two sisters: Sharon Cohn and Cynthia Faust. The trio launched Breathless in 2011, and the wines have won awards at the Los Angeles International Wine Competition and the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. The Breathless lineup includes a Brut ($25), Blanc de Noirs and Brut Rosé (both $32 per bottle).

Gadd-Coster, who is also the winemaker for Breathless, says she has ideas going into harvest about which lots will be included in the label’s final blends. “That has evolved over time as we have pinned down fruit sources,” she explained. “So now I know there are particular blocks that might be better, and then I have a bit of room to look and say, ‘This might be better for this program,” and pick and choose a little bit.”

Rack & Riddle sources grapes from vineyards in California’s Mendocino and Sonoma counties.

Tools of the trade
Rack & Riddle’s Healdsburg location is home to one tirage line, one disgorging line and two bottling lines—one for still wines, one for sparkling. The company moved its Grilliat (now TDD Grilliat Machines) disgorging/dosing machine from Hopland as part of the move, and Gadd-Coster says it’s her favorite piece of equipment at the winery because of its multiple functions.

The bottles “enter after they’ve been disgorged and go around three times with a different head,” she explained. “When it goes around the first time it takes a little bit of wine out. The second time around, the bottle gets a little bit of dose (liqueur de tirage, or yeast and sugar), and the third time around it gets filled up to that 750ml capacity.”

The winery also uses a cloud-based system that allows clients to track their wines through the various stages of production. Gadd-Coster said they selected the VINx2 software for winemaking because it was the option best suited to sparkling winemaking.

“There are a lot of good programs, but this particular company had worked with some sparkling houses in Australia, so they were already versed in what was needed and how to track that,” she said. “That is a benefit that is really nice for clients: to be able to track along and also be able to oversee and get work done.”

The process of aging
Real-time monitoring of wine is something that’s on the minds of Rack & Riddle staff in many ways. While bottles of sparkling don’t age for as long as most red table wines, they are also not as quick to market as other pale-hued wines such as Sauvignon Blanc—at least not when created with the méthode Champenoise style, which Rack & Riddle employs for its sparklers.

Most sparkling wines finish secondary fermentation around six months after crush, but that doesn’t mean they’re ready for the public. “It hasn’t quite gotten its act together,” Gadd-Coster said.

“It’s definitely a fresh wine at that point, but it’s also kind of a jumbled wine,” she continued. “If you can give it even another six months’ worth of time, a lot of that integration is starting to take place.”

Co-owner Lundquist agrees. “Once it gets over 12 months or 15 months or 16 months, it becomes more elegant and shows characteristics that everyone desires,” he told Wines & Vines.

But while aging sparkling wines in bottle ultimately adds to the wines’ value, it is not without expense to Rack & Riddle. “It’s not active revenue-generating space,” co-owner Lundquist said of case storage.

“The biggest consideration we’ve had to make is cooling space to age the sparkling wine,” he explained, adding that at any given time the winery is storing 1.5 vintages for most of its clients.

Acquiring yet another location is probably inevitable, though Lundquist said he would like to keep it as close as possible.

Grape to bottle
Another change Lundquist anticipates is growing interest from winemakers looking to manage grape-to-bottle sparkling programs. Wineries that started off purchasing Brut shiners from Rack & Riddle have expressed interest in making sparkling from their own vineyard sources—some of them sparkling Syrah and Zinfandel.

“We probably wouldn’t have had those requests three or four years ago,” said Lundquist, who maintains that product diversity is good for business. “We certainly wanted to have some sort of a balance between still and sparkling, so if one of these categories suffered a downturn we would have the other to prop up.”

Meanwhile, sales of sparkling wine have skyrocketed in recent years and show no signs of slowing down. According to the International Organisation of Vine and Wine, sparkling production in the United States has increased by 22% since 2002. And while overall U.S. wine sales grew just 0.3% in volume during 2014, according to Impact Databank, sparkling wine sales jumped 3%.

With its new facilities and the ability to increase production for a growing clientele, Rack & Riddle is ready to take its business to the next level.

“It’s like any winery,” Gadd-Coster said, “but we are providing the winery.”

 

 
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