Gravity flow wineries. Isn’t this just common sense?

Halter Ranch Gravity Flow

Gravity flow wineries.  Lately it’s a high tech term, but really it seems like common sense doesn’t it?  In Bordeaux Chateau Lynch-Bages built a tank house that employed a railed gravity flow system in 1850. The lower level held the vats and the upper level was for de-stemming and crushing so that the juice would flow (via gravity) into the vats below.

Gravity flow these days is seemingly expensive with huge complexes built to support this method.  The Palmaz Winery in Napa is the ultimate example of this. This is  the ultimate in gravity flow winery design.  This winery is built in Mount George in Napa.  The wine cave is 18 stories tall with fermentation tanks that rotate on a carousel under the crush pad.


Halter Ranch Wine Making Facility

Halter Ranch Wine Making Facility

Halter Ranch in Paso Robles just finished a beautiful new facility that is designed for gravity flow and ease of work flow for winery workers.   On top of that the place is stunning. ( more on Halter Ranch Soon)

Of course there are simpler methods.  Take Willakenzie Winery in Yamhill Oregon.  This winery is simply built to be 3 stories down the side of a hill.  The top floor is for sorting and de-stemming, the middle floor for fermentation and tank storage and the bottom floor for barrel storage.  The juice/wine flows from one floor down to the next via gravity.

But even small wineries can make this system work.  You just have to have your tanks higher than your barrels!  A simple hose from the tank to the barrel will work!  You save the expense of the pumping equipment as well as the maintenance and energy costs.  This method is a bit more time consuming though.  You can fill a barrel in 4 to 5 hours, but…if you don’t wish the gravity to push too hard on your wine, you might adjust your hose to allow the juice to flow more slowly taking 7 to 8 hours to fill a barrel.  So if you are a big mass producing winery you probably don’t want to take the time to do this.  But…if you are in the business of making good wine…

So what kind of damage can pumping do to wine?  From the top you want to gently press the grapes and have them release their juice.  Crushing is actually a pretty harsh word.  In crushing the concern is breaking the seeds and imparting the astringent tannins into your wine. (of course there are winemakers who utilize the tannins in both seeds and stems to great result! ie Brewer/Clifton)  Pumping can force through solids and then requiring additional filtration for your wine.  Pumping also imparts oxygen into the wine and this can affect the aging of the wine.  Pumping can be especially unwanted with the more nuanced varieties of wine like pinot noir as it can disturb the subtleties in the wine.

From an environmental standpoint it is reducing the energy use.  You don’t have to pay for gravity on the electric bill!  Building a gravity flow winery in the beginning will save you energy and equipment cost in the end.

So does it make the wine better?  Well, it treats it more gently and after we torture the grapes on the vine, that seems to be the preferred method of treating them post harvest.  It is energy efficient and seems to be kinda common sense (work smarter not harder!).  In the end there are so many variables.  When you use gravity flow you are again trying to have as little outside influence on the grape as possible.   After that it is in the winemaker’s hands.  And…well before that it is in the vineyard managers hands, as well as the weather.  So many variables.  All in all, a gravity flow system is an ideal, that can be put into practice with a little forethought in building.  It is environmentally better and should in the long run be cheaper.  As to it making the wine taste better?  Maybe it’s time for a comparison test!?  (Any excuse to taste more wine!)

Yeasts: Indigenous or Cultured

Wine pouring into vat

Recently while in Paso I had an interesting and enlightening conversation with David Parrish of Parrish Family Vineyards regarding yeast.  Now this is not a subject that I have in depth knowledge on, most of what I know I have picked up by listening at my favorite vineyards.  I walked into the conversation a big supporter of the use of natural yeast, without any real understanding of why you wouldn’t use natural yeast.  David explained that natural yeast could be a completely uncontrollable variable in wine making.  This was a new perspective for me.   So, today is the day to research and explore the pros and cons of indigenous yeast vs. adding cultured yeast to wines.

First, I suppose we should talk about what part the yeast plays in the making of wine.

Yeast is what causes the fermentation process in wine.  The yeast, just like when you are making bread, eats up the sugars and produces, in this case alcohol and carbon dioxide.  The yeast will typically continue to do this until it has transformed all the sugars. The process can stop or be stopped short of that, which gives you the residual sugar in wine.

grape-grapesIndigenous yeasts are those that are “naturally” occurring in the vineyard or winery.  Yes “naturally” is in quotes, because well…yeasts can show up from anywhere.  Lets begin by talking about the natural yeast that you find in the vineyard.   In Europe these yeasts that are found on the skins of the grapes are considered part of the terroir.   Often called the “bloom” or “blush” these yeasts can be seen on the skin of the grape and come into the winery with the grape during harvest.  These native yeasts can produce amazing and unique wines, but they are also a bit of a wildcard, because they can also be unpredictable causing off flavors or aromas and possible spoilage.  Wild yeast as it is already on the grapes can start the fermentation process immediately, as the weight of the grapes on top crush the grapes on the bottom the yeasts can go to work before they even get to the crushpad.  Indigenous yeast can take longer to get going with fermentation and there isn’t a specific formula for how long fermentation will take, so the winemaker must be vigilant, checking in on the process often to see where it’s at.  The type of vineyard can assist natural yeast in the vineyards.  If the pH is low and there is high acidity this will help the yeast to succeed.  Often warmer regions with higher yields don’t work as well for natural yeast.  The variety of natural yeast found in a vineyard can also add to the diversity of flavor in the wines.  In Europe most wineries use natural yeast, this is the way it has been done for centuries.  Often a “pied du cuvee” is used to kick start a slow fermentation.   A “pied du Cuvee” is like sourdough starter.  Grapes are picked a few days or weeks prior to harvest and crushed to cultivate the yeasts.  Then if the fermentation from the indigenous yeasts is slow this can be added to kick start the fermentation process.  This is also used if there is rain before harvest that washes away many of the natural yeasts on the grapes.

On the downside, it has been said that the benefits to flavor of natural yeast can only be shown while the wine is young, after 6 months of aging these notes are no longer noticeable.  And…yeasts also can be found in the winery and cellar and these are thrown into the mix along with any that arrive on equipment coming into the winery, so you have additional curve balls that can be thrown in.  Also many indigenous yeast are of strains that only tolerate low alcohol levels, once levels reach 3 to 4% these yeasts die off.


For the winemaker who prefers cultured yeast it is all about control.  Yeast is an ingredient carefully chosen for a specific effect. I mentioned how indigenous yeast can be a wild card?… Using indigenous yeast it is possible to lose 10-20% of a wineries wine if the yeast does not behave in the way you expected.  Many small wineries do not want to take that chance.  And…well once you use a cultured yeast, that powerhouse of a yeast is in your winery and will overpower any native yeast that comes in, so it’s hard to go back.  Cultured yeasts will start the fermentation process much more quickly.  Large producers use this to quickly ferment, so they can move on and reuse the tanks.  Cultured yeasts are primarily “sugar yeasts” and there are several hundred strains to choose from.  The type of yeast can affect the characteristics of the wine even changing characteristics within a grape variety.  Some strains make a heavier sediment to make it easier to rack the wine.  Commonly with added yeast a large dose of a single strain is added to start the fermentation process.  Saccharomyces cerevisiae is the primary yeast used in fermenting wines.  Unlike many naturally occurring types of yeasts it can tolerate high alcohol levels.

There are downsides to using cultured yeast.  You can have problems with volatile acidity and stuck fermentations, problems you don’t see with natural yeast.


My summary:  This is just the start of my research on yeasts.  I look forward to conversations with winemakers on their opinions.  I am all about the love of wine, and the winemaker’s love of winemaking.  The romance and history of natural yeast and my immense love of Tablas Creek has me leaning in that direction.  But…as I have said before gorgeous wine comes in many forms.  There are so many variables in wine, in the growing of the grapes, in the harvesting, in the winemaking… and I enjoy wines with many different backgrounds and styles.  We discussed Biodynamics and Organically Certified wineries before.  Do those labels make these wineries and their wines better?  No, but often it means that the winery and winemaker are passionate about their wines and are striving to find ways to make them better.

So here’s to the discussion and exploration of winemaking in all it’s many forms and facets!  Cheers!

Ponte Family Estate Winery, a Tour in Temecula, CA

We visited the winery earlier this year in February (see our previous blog post on Ponte here) and enjoyed lunch on the patio at the restaurant and then Fred gave us an astoundingly informative tour, and then a tasting with Michel in tasting room.  We recently planned a trip to Temecula, which we will be posting on shortly while researching our trip we came upon some lost information that we learned from our tour with Fred, an we though we would share.

Ponte Family Vineyard, Christmas 2012

Ponte Family Vineyard, Christmas 2012

Ponte Winery is in Temecula California, just northeast of San Diego.  The vineyard is located where it directly receives the maritime influences of the coast from the Rainbow Gap.  The soil structure here is coarse and poor.  This is ideal because you can then control exactly which nutrients you feed the vines. This nutrient mix is provided through irrigation once each year in March and the blend is different for each vineyard depending on the variety. With poor soil you don’t have to be concerned with nutrients already in the soil so it doesn’t interfere with the ideal nutrients for each grape.  Grape vines have an aggressive root structure, burrowing deep searching for ground water.  The water table at Ponte sits at 50 feet deep. Falker  (a winery down the road) did measurements to see how deep some of their 25 year old vines roots went and found that they went about 17 feet deep.  On the Ponte property are 10 acres 2 blocks of 5 acres each of Zinfandel and Sangiovese that were planted in 1960.  The roots on these over 50 year old vines go down 30 ft.  Eventually these roots will hit the water table and they will self irrigate.  Irrigation in wine country is not like in farm country, you are not looking for big juicy grapes.  Rather than watering daily they stress the vines by doing one 18 hour drip irrigation session once every 2 to 3 weeks. This keeps the grapes small and intensely concentrated.

While there is frost protection with fans and misters for the citrus groves that surround many of the vineyards, the vineyards are not concerned with frost protection as the season for frost is short enough that the vines are always dormant at that time. Bud break happens in March.  Winemakers and Vineyard Managers can tell which vine is which by the flowers in bud break.  By testing the flowers and leaves they can see how much nickel etc. is in the vine and that in turn helps to determine how to mix the formula for nutrients.

We tasted a Dolcetto that was exclusively Temecula. This juice is being staged for blending with material with Paso and Santa Barbara.  This was a tank tasting from of the stainless steel tanks out on the crush pad. It was still decidedly grape juice and was very tart, but you could taste the potential in it!

At Ponte they harvest during the night.  Sunlight affects the sugar levels of the grapes, causing the brix level to change throughout the day. To avoid this variable and have a uniform brix level you harvest at night.  After the grapes are harvested they go through the destemmer, are crushed twice and then the skin seeds and all are put into the large stainless steel tanks.  At Ponte they only process one type of grape at a time. After this comes the settling process where the grape juice settles for 3 to 5 days.  During that time skins rise to the top and seeds sink to the bottom.  The winemaker then checks the acidity etc to see how much yeast to add.  Then yeast is added and here begins the chemical reaction changing sugar to alcohol.  This generally takes 7-10 days for fermentation to be complete.  The winemaker stops at the alcohol level he has predetermined and then pumps off.  All of the skins and seeds sink to the bottom and workers scoop out this “must” which is then put back into the soil.

The barrel room is kept at 60 degrees.  All the red wines are aged here as well as the oaked Chardonnay’s. The Ponte Viognier is not oaked.  95% percent of the barrels Ponte uses are French oak that either come from Vosges near Alsace or Burgundy which is noted for it’s perfect white oak wood.  They have been experimenting with white oak from Hungary and Bulgaria and some American oak.  The difference between French oak and American oak is that the staves in Europe dry for at least 3 years, whereas in America they only dry for about a year and a half.  This creates a coarser product and more intense flavors.  The more aged the staves are the more subtle the flavors.

French barrels are expensive currently running $850 per barrel new.  Each barrel will be used for about 3 agings.  The wine maker earns their pay by also knowing which wines to age in new, medium and late oak to impart the exact flavors they are looking for.  You can tell a late oak barrel in the barrel room by the stain and seepage (angels share).  After the barrels have run their lifespan they are sold at $75 each to wine club members.  Each barrel weighs 100 plus pounds empty because the staves are so thick.  The majority of Ponte’s barrels are done at medium to light toast.  Their Syrah is done with a heavier toast and is probably their smokiest wine. About 80% of their barrels have light toast the rest are at medium toast and then winemaker blends. Each barrel holds 288 bottles or 24 cases of wine.

As the barrel room is kept at 60 degrees people often ask about how they can do events in there? When the barrels are backlit the room is really stunning.  They can warm the room for 1 night to 75 or 80 degrees and it won’t really affect the wine.  If however, it was held at that temperature 4 or 5 days….then you might have a problem.

We tried the 2008 Port out of the barrel.  This will be aged another year and it will release as a reserve port.  It is a Zinfandel port as most of their ports are, but they have made a Cabernet port in the past.  The port had a bit of a bite from the alcohol content, but with an additional year it will be stunning.  A port of this quality should run $85-$90 per bottle. But only their wine club will be lucky enough to get a shot at it!

The reserve room at Ponte is reserved for wine club members and is open on Saturday and Sunday to give wine club members a place to get away from the crowd.  They also do small plates menu.

The restaurant is open Friday and Saturday nights for dinner.  With the Tasting room closed at that time it’s quiet, you can see the stars and enjoy the noise of the romantic frogs.

In addition to the winery, tasting room and restaurant they recently opened the Ponte Vineyard Inn so you can stay in comfort right in the heart of Temecula Wine Country.

Ponte Inn, Temcula in oil

Ponte Inn, Temcula in oil

If you are in Temecula, I highly recommend both lunch and a tour.  Plan ahead and book a room at the Inn!