Peay Winery: A Winemaker’s Winery

I once mused what it would be like to make wine in a zero gravity environment. I think of the film clips of the astronauts aboard the Mir space station, how they munch on Cheetos floating by their faces, snatching them one by one out of space as the crunchy snacks glide past their mouths. I imagine being able to suspend a bin of grapes containing 950 pounds of hand-picked clusters from our estate Pinot Noir vineyard effortlessly over our de-stemmer and somehow guiding the freshly de-stemmed, whole berries into a tank for fermentation. It would be the ultimate in gentle winemaking! Then I wonder how I would accomplish the step of sorting the grapes on the triage table like we do. I picture a scene of us herding grape clusters like cats as they escape in all directions while we try to cull out any less-than-perfect fruit. How would we keep the grapes in the open top fermentors? Then, of course, there is the question of precisely how does wine get made at zero gravity. I mean, can the yeast actually ferment sugar at zero gravity? Would the wine be any good? I can hear myself saying, “Damn it, Jim, I’m a winemaker not a cosmonaut!”

Back here on planet earth, working with gravity is very much a part of the quality winemaking process. This is why when we started to design our new winery, the utilization of gravity played largely into the overall practical design concept. In case you haven’t tried, designing a winery is quite a daunting project. You start with a blank slate and work within the constraints and parameters of space, logistics and budget. Here we had the chance to customize all aspects of a raw piece of land to the way we make our wine yet ensure some flexibility in case we ever changed our minds. We are quite proud of our winery because it is really a winemaker’s winery. No Taj Mahal here or edifice of grandiose architecture. Not to say that it isn’t an attractive building—its barn-like structure with board and battens echoes the simple charm of the turn-of-the-century farmhouse at our vineyard on the Sonoma Coast. Still, we took what we learned through our combined 34 years experience in making wine in 16 different wineries to design a handsome winery that maximizes quality in winemaking with a smart and practical approach.

Through the ages, gravity has always been used in the making of wine. That and sheer muscle power got the job done. However, with modernization came mechanization and the advent of pumps to move wine around from tank to barrel and back. Can you picture a scene out of those atomic age films you used to watch in science class showing a factory humming with activity and a voiceover saying, “Today with modern technology we can move millions of gallons of wine with a flick of a switch”? But, to capture and preserve the essence of the fruit from our vineyard, we want to be gentle to the grapes and the wine and do not want to move them by the use of pumps. So, we use modern technology and a little ingenuity to create gravity—a modern method to return to a traditional way of making wine. I have visited and worked in a number of wineries that employed the use of gravity to move wine from one vessel to another by building a winery with enough levels to accommodate the different stages of the winemaking process, usually requiring 4 levels. However, with the use of a forklift I can lift 4000 pounds to create that gravity rather than constructing a building with that many levels. Our winery has two levels so we combine both architectural gravity and created gravity. At harvest we create gravity by conveying the grapes on a sorting table that carries the fruit on a belt up to the top of a hopper to be de-stemmed and placed into bins that are elevated by a forklift and poured into small 3 ton open-top fermentors. Then, after fermentation, we fill the barrels by gently draining the fermentors on the ground level of the winery through holes in the floor to barrels in the subterranean level without the use of a pump. At blending, we gently move the wine back to the ground level by pushing it with an inert gas, much like a Cruvinet on a large scale, again avoiding the use of a pump. Voilà!

We also built two pneumatic punch-down machines to use with our open-top fermentors. With these I can gently and consistently punch-down the caps on each fermenting tank thrice daily by myself. My back thanks me for that after each punch-down! Even after a long day in the vineyard and on the crush pad during harvest, I will still have the energy necessary to make the last punch down before heading to bed. No excuses possible, no compromises made.

Temperature management is also very important during the different stages of winemaking. Each tank has the capability of being cooled for a pre-fermentative cold soak, and warmed up or cooled anytime during cuvaison to control fermentation, and color and tannin extraction. We also designed our subterranean barrel cellar to have seven separate rooms each with its own temperature and humidity controls so that the barrels can be stored at the ideal temperature for each of stage of yeast fermentation, malo-lactic fermentation and aging. Just think of when you are in your car and you have the heat going because you are too cold while your spouse is complaining that it is too warm. Sound familiar? Well, throughout the winemaking cycle our various lots of wine display similar behavior to you and your spouse, so we designed the winery with the capability to have up to seven different environments to accommodate individual lots’ needs. I bet sometimes you wish you had that many separate environments when sharing a car ride.

We have designed many things in our winery, in a general sense and in the finer details, that allow us to work in a smart, facile and efficient manner; not so that we can be more hands-off in the winemaking but, on the contrary, so we can be more hands-on. Working smarter allows me to have the time and energy to check on each tank and each barrel in the winery and, most importantly, it gives me the freedom to spend as much time in the vineyard as possible. It is kind of like cooking from scratch. I like making fresh pasta by hand. People often wonder why I bother since one can easily buy already made pasta, even fresh pasta. I probably wouldn’t do it without the help of a food processor to help me incorporate the eggs into the flour or a hand-crank pasta machine to roll out the dough into sheets. But I still knead the dough by hand to achieve the desired elasticity. It’s something that I sense by touch, since the egg and flour can often vary. The result is so much better that anything you can buy, a perfect complement to one’s home-made sauce from garden-grown tomatoes. Our pneumatic punch-down machine is still largely manual, much like the hand-crank pasta machine is still largely manual. I still want to make something the old-fashioned way but I use a little help with a modern machine to achieve it. Similarly, the modernity of our winery allows us to return back to a traditional way of making wine with an emphasis on hands-on attention to the crafting of our estate grown grapes into wine.

Purveyors of the paranormal hypothesize that space aliens helped build monumental structures like the pyramids in Egypt. In argument, they pose the question of how else could people have moved such massive building blocks in ancient times without technological aid? Well, until I can successfully employ a couple of extraterrestrials as harvest interns to hoist tons of grapes and wine by hand through the winery, I am happy to work in the winery we designed especially to make hand-crafted wines in a gentle yet logical and smart way so we don’t have to make any concessions for quality. And when it comes time to send the first winemaker into space I will consider signing up to make the inaugural astro-cuvée!

Recent articles by Vanessa Wong