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Benovia Winery Russian River Valley winery expands with new facility for red wine production by Andrew Adam , Wines & Vines

During the 2015 harvest, the staff at Benovia Winery in California broke in a new winery dedicated to red wine production. The new facility was part of a larger expansion that also included a new vineyard and tasting room. In addition to providing the winemaking team with better equipment and more space, the expansion is also the beginning of the next phase in the history of the Russian River Valley estate winery.

Founders Joe Anderson and his wife Mary Dewane came to Sonoma County after purchasing the Cohn Vineyard near Healdsburg, Calif., in 2003. Before joining the wine business, Anderson and Dewane both enjoyed successful careers in the health care industry. Anderson was the co-founder of a Phoenix-based health plan services firm that operated in eight states; he sold the company to Aetna in 2007 for $535 million.

As he was leaving health care, Anderson saw the potential of the Cohn Vineyard through the critical success of wineries—Kosta Browne and Williams Selyem produced acclaimed wines using grapes from the vineyard—and decided he wanted to launch a winery. In 2005, Anderson and Dewane purchased what was then known as Hartman Lane Vineyards and Winery, which had been built by Cecil DeLoach. Anderson and Dewane came up with the name of their winery by combining the names of their fathers, Ben Dewane and Novian Anderson.

After buying the Hartman Road winery, the owners brought on winemaker Mike Sullivan, who had been racking up high scores and critical acclaim while making wine for about a decade at nearby Hartford Family Winery. Sullivan not only would be the winemaker for the new Benovia Winery but a partner as well.

In addition to the 18-acre Cohn Vineyard, the winery’s other estate properties include the 12-acre Tilton Hill Vineyard near the Sonoma Coast and the 42-acre Martaella Vineyard that surrounds the new winery. The winery produces vineyard designate and estate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay as well as a small amount of Zinfandel and Grenache. Benovia also buys grapes from Martinelli Vineyards and a vineyard owned by Sullivan’s family. 

A place to grow 

In 2008, the owners purchased a property adjacent to the old winery for the new winery. Sullivan said the original plan had been to renovate and expand the existing winery, but that proved problematic, and the partners instead chose to use the new property to build a winery for red wines and maintain Chardonnay production at the older facility.

Jessie Whitesides, architect and principal with A2 Studios in Santa Rosa, Calif., designed the winery. Whitesides also designed the Lasseter Family Winery in Glen Ellen, Calif., Paul Hobbs Winery in Sebastopol, Calif., and other North Coast wineries. Chico, Calif.-based Modern Building Inc. oversaw construction. 

At the core of the new building is a bank of open-top tanks that are accessed by a central catwalk. Large doors on the north and south sides of the winery provide abundant natural ventilation and sunlight. A covered crush pad is situated on the north side of the building, and a 25-hectoliter Revinsa basket press is located on the southern side. 

The new facility is 10,000 square feet and provides much needed tank space. “When we had few fermentors it was a matter of logistics,” Sullivan told Wines & Vines. Harvest dates had to be balanced with cellar space. “Now we can harvest any varietal on any given day without limitations, and that’s exciting.” 

In 2015, Sullivan said the winery processed about 120 tons of fruit, and current case production is around 7,000 cases. In addition to building the new winery, Benovia’s owners also converted the existing ranch house into a new tasting room. The winery sells about 60% of its entire production direct to consumer with the rest distributed among 15 major markets. 

Nearly 70% of all production is Pinot Noir, with Chardonnay accounting for the remainder. Zinfandel and Grenache production is quite limited and almost entirely sold through the tasting room. 

From the roots up 

Sullivan works closely with Benovia’s vineyard manager Chris Kangas, who is a Sonoma County native and worked with DeLoach for nearly 30 years. The estate vineyards are planted at high density with 5-foot rows. “What we like is we’re able to reduce our vine yield and still achieve commercial per acreage tonnage,” Sullivan said.

The tighter rows, however, are too narrow for standard half-ton bins, so the winery uses modified MacroBins that hold a quarter-ton (500 pounds). These bins can be pulled behind the winery’s narrow tractors during harvest, which is conducted before dawn and by hand. The winery works with Bowland Vineyard Management for vineyard labor during harvest and the rest of the year.

“We double sort,” Sullivan said. “We do a cluster sort and then we destem and berry sort, so we have two different tables.” The harvested grape clusters are dumped onto an inclined sorter table by P&L Specialties that leads to an Armbruster Rotovib destemmer from Scott Laboratories. Destemmed berries then undergo another round of manual sorting on a second P&L table before they’re collected into small portable tanks or bins that get dumped into the open-top tanks.

Westec Tank & Equipment supplied the dozen 6-ton open-top and two closed-top tanks at the new winery. A system from Refrigeration Technology Inc. provides individual temperature control for each tank. The Westec tanks are also fitted with dimpled jackets on the bottom inter ior surface and separately controlled panels on the outside to prevent tanks from getting too warm. “With this type of system we can heat the floor, which is the coldest part. Usually where you have the most issues with heating is the interface with the floor,” he said. “If the tank gets too hot, the jackets turn on.”

While all the tanks are equipped with rack screens to make pumpovers easier, Sullivan’s preferred method for cap management is punchdowns because they are quicker to perform and foster better extraction. “You can crank out multiple punchdowns in 20 minutes. You’re done with just one pumpover in 20 minutes,” he said. “From a labor-savings perspective I like it, and we do batch trials every few years, and we tend to like punchdowns more than pumpovers.”

Sullivan said while pumpovers do provide for a gentle extraction that helps create “elegant” texture, the color isn’t the same, and the wines “miss a bit of grip.”

Situated along the tank catwalk and at several spots throughout the winery are hot and cold water stations with compressed air and nitrogen from the winery’s Parker nitrogen generator. The winery also has a bank of quick connections for glycol to accommodate small-lot fermentations in 2-ton portable tanks by Idiaz Services that can be dumped directly into the basket press. Sullivan said the small lots are typically experimental ferments, certain vineyard blocks or single fermentations of one of the vineyard’s 10 heritage Pinot clones.

The clones are providing Sullivan with some new insights about Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. He said they also “have a nice affinity” for whole cluster, and he’ll add about 25% of clusters to the fermentor. “They just have this synergy; it gives it a little bit of peppermint, little spearmint, and texturally it gives it this kind of umami quality,” he said. “It really gives the wine more vibrancy, a little more aromatic intensity.”

Native fermentation

Sullivan said he didn’t inoculate anything during the first harvest at the new winery. “Everything was native just this past year,” he said. “Sometimes we used to inoculate reds because we didn’t have the fermentation capacity. We had seven 6-ton fermentors over there, so we just didn’t have the capacity that we now have. We had to turn tanks more aggressively.”

Those open-top tanks at the old winery are still available if needed, but that wasn’t the case in 2015. All of the Benovia Chardonnay is still produced at the original winery. Sullivan presses whole clusters and then lets the juice settle in stainless steel tanks before racking to barrels for fermentation. He ferments all the Chardonnay in about 20% new, French oak. “Chardonnay has such a natural affinity to barrel aging and fermentation; I really like the texture that it brings out,” he said. “When it’s done well and it’s integrated, it’s not a statement. It builds the texture of the wine and gives it additional depth.”

Sullivan also recently purchased a new 80-hectoliter Willmes press for Chardonnay production. The press can handle 5 tons of whole-cluster grapes. “That was a nice addition, a good investment,” he said. “That helped us out a lot.”

During fermentation, Sullivan stirs the Chardonnay barrels twice per month until malolactic fermentation to help build mouthfeel. He said the amount of wine that goes through malolactic depends on the vintage. “They have really bright, natural acidity—sometimes even less than 3.2 pH—so at that pH they tend to struggle to go through malo, which is fine.”

The Pinot Noir sees about 40% new oak, and some of Sullivan’s preferred cooperages include Francois Freres, Tonnellerie Rousseau, Tonnellerie Cavin et Fils, Marcel Cade, Chassin and Seguin Moreau. “We generally work with three-year air-dried staves that have less impact,” he said. “We’re getting away from sweetness. We don’t want it to be this big, sleazy oak bomb. We’re really trying to respect the texture of the fruit.”

‘Old school’ bottling

Once the wine is ready for bottling, Benovia is equipped with its own line. Sullivan admits it’s a little old school for a small Pinot winery to have its own bottling equipment, but that’s what he’s always done. The winery has two 12-spout GAI monoblock fillers from Prospero as well as a corker and pressure-sensitive labeler.

Next to the bottling room is the laboratory, which is also well equipped with an OenoFoss analyzer for VA, pH, TA and alcohols as well as a Mettler Toledo auto titrator for sulfur dioxide and a Thermo Fisher Scientific spectrometer. “We have a lot of fun lab toys,” said assistant winemaker Jen Walsh. “For a 7,000-case winery, we’re pretty well equipped, which is great.”

The lab also features a large touch-screen display that presents real-time tank data through RTI’s Gen II monitoring system. Sullivan said the system provides data about the tanks and barrel room and also lets him adjust anything as needed. He can access the system from his desktop or mobile device, and it will generate text or email alerts if any tank temperatures fall out of tolerance.

Sullivan said they’re working on incorporating Winemakers Database in to the system to generate even more information, and they could make further adjustments or modifications as needed. “We haven’t gotten the Ferrari out of first gear just yet.”

The winemaker said the opportunity to join Benovia was rare in that he and the other partners could implement their vision of the estate vineyards. “What I like to say about this project is that it’s sort of the way wineries were back in the ’60s: land and then brand,” he said. “Today it’s so cost prohibitive to do that, so no one does that. It’s kind of fun to have these blank slates in terms of purchasing property and developing these sites, and for me that’s what I really enjoy: conceptualizing and bringing it to reality.”

Now that a new winery and vineyard are a reality, Benovia Winery is well positioned to continue to build a reputation for estate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

KEY POINTS    

  • Completed in time for the 2015 vintage, the new winery is designed specifically for red wine production.  
  • The facility includes a fully equipped lab and bottling line.   
  • Two separate barrel rooms offer plenty of space for aging wine.
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