Taste Rare Small-Production Wines at Sonoma’s Custom Crush Facilities

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Grapes slide to the sorting table in juicy clusters, dancing and jiggling on the vibrating, 20-foot-long mechanized belt. Winemaker and consultant

Adam Lee of Clarice Wine Company studies the fruit as interns and friends carefully pick out leaves, twigs, and other unwanted hitchhikers in a ritual that marks the beginning of the winemaking process.

But this is a different kind of winery. It’s Sugarloaf Crush, located along Highway 12 at the western edge of Sonoma Valley, and the expensive sorting and crushing equipment is all in rented space. Lee, known for his limited-production Pinot Noir, shares the 60,000-square-foot structure with some three dozen other clients, all making their own small-production fine wines. Think of it as a collaborative co-working space for winemakers.

“I knew that Clarice’s production was going to be small — only about 600 cases a year — and that certainly isn’t enough to sustain its own facility,” Lee says. “But I needed to make wine somewhere. Custom crush allows smaller wineries to exist, and if it weren’t for them, many of us wouldn’t be around.”

In the highly competitive world of Sonoma wines, pennies count. Winemaking equipment is expensive — sorters, tanks, presses, and bottling lines, not to mention the square footage to house them. So custom crush facilities, where small producers come together and share equipment, are a great value. Sonoma County has long hosted custom crushes, ranging from larger wineries that lease out their facilities for extra income to behemoth businesses like Healdsburg’s Rack & Riddle, which handles more than one million cases annually for some 150 clients.

Cristian Ortiz adds sulphur dioxide to wine barrels at the Grand Cru Custom Crush facility in Windsor. (John Burgess/Sonoma Magazine)

A boon for wine lovers

But here’s the big news: the newest custom crush facilities in Sonoma County now come with extra amenities that are a boon for wine-lovers: first-class tasting facilities, event areas, and tours. Guests can see the work in action, meet one-on-one with winemakers, and explore rare wines they might never find otherwise.

Trendsetters include the luxury Grand Cru in Windsor, Healdsburg’s architecturally stunning Grapewagon Custom Crush, and Sugarloaf itself, which wows with its communal Grand Room: a lounge trimmed in reclaimed wood featuring a fireplace, and plush leather furniture, not to mention an expansive entry lawn with majestic mountain views.

Working with a modern crush is a more personal experience now, says Rebecca Birdsall, who co-owns the 3,000-case Black Kite label with her husband Tom Birdsall, and was one of the first winemakers to join Grand Cru. They previously made wine at the more industrial Punchdown Cellars in Santa Rosa and were happy with the experience, she said.

“But we were intrigued by the elegant design and flexibility of Grand Cru, and the fact that we could use their tasting salons and take our customers into the winery and barrel-taste.”

Certainly, a custom crush is financially necessary for their Black Kite brand, with most of the wines produced in tiny batches ranging from about 125 to 200 cases. But Grand Cru’s individual tasting salons, framed by modern garage-style roll-up doors, allow customers to learn first-hand about — and fall in love with — the couple’s Burgundy-style Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Windsor’s Grand Cru Custom Crush has private tasting salons, which its winemaking clients use to meet with guests. Wineries here include Black Kite and Maritana Vineyards. (John Burgess/Sonoma Magazine)
At Grand Cru Custom Crush in Windsor the upper offices have views into the fermentation room. (John Burgess/Sonoma Magazine)

Cross-pollination of ideas

Winemaker Donald Patz makes 5,000 cases a year of his Maritana Vineyards Russian River Valley Chardonnay and Pinot Noir at Grand Cru. In addition to the value of being able to speak directly with his customers, he appreciates the collaboration with fellow winemakers and the cellar crew.

“Even when it’s really busy, the staff is so good at parsing out assignments that it feels like my own wholly dedicated team, with skills I couldn’t afford on my own,” says Patz. “And winemakers hang together here, so there’s cross-pollination of ideas, which is what I really wanted.”

Behind-the-scenes peeks become an integral part of custom crush visits, as guests experience the complicated waltz between winemakers and facility management. “There is immense communication taking place at harvest time to optimize the pick dates, the available labor, crush pad usage, and tank and press availability,” explains Birdsall.

“The best winemakers are clairvoyant.”

While Clarice’s Adam Lee, who is in high demand as a consutant, could likely operate out of almost any winery he’d like, he remains a custom crush fan. He makes his new Beau Marchais Pinot Noirs at Grapewagon, wines for the Bucher Winery at Grand Cru, and projects for J. Cage Cellars at Sugarloaf Crush. It’s interesting, he finds, as multiple winemakers collaborate, sharing tips and techniques. “In the heat of harvest, it sometimes is every person for themselves, but during the rest of the year we often chat and taste together,” he said.

Clarice Wine Company winemaker Adam Lee in Sugarloaf’s large shared tasting room. (John Burgess/Sonoma Magazine)
The storage room at Sugarloaf Crush has a capacity of 4500 barrels. (John Burgess/Sonoma Magazine)
Winemaker Chris Leonard of the Leonard Wine Company high up in the barrel stacks, sampling for a wine-blending trial. (John Burgess/Sonoma Magazine)
Jessica Yeates, the enologist for VML and Truett Hurst wineries, in the facility’s wine lab. (John Burgess/Sonoma Magazine)

Behind-the-scenes thrills

Witnessing the teamwork can be a rush. Flaunt Wine Company joined Grapewagon Custom Crush for the 2019 harvest, with owner/ winemaker Dianna Novy producing 250 cases of Sexton Vineyard Pinot Noir. Grapewagon’s owners, James and Kerry MacPhail, originally built the 42,000-square-foot facility in 2011 for their MacPhail Family Wines. After selling that brand, the MacPhails switched the setup to custom crush, serving a dozen clients, including their own new label, Tongue Dancer. The facility is just 50 feet from the MacPhail family’s own home.

“Winemakers collaborate here, and if it weren’t for custom crush, small boutique wineries would be basically nonexistent,” says Novy. “There is a great camaraderie, and I think it’s because we all just want to drink the best wines, so we encourage each other to make the very best that we can.”

The Sugarloaf Crush facility rests at the base of Hood Mountain in Oakmont. (John Burgess/Sonoma Magazine)

How to taste at a custom crush

Custom crush tastings and tours are generally by appointment and often arranged individually by each winery client.

Grand Cru Custom Crush, 1200 American Way, Windsor. 707-687-0905, grandcrucustomcrush.com. Independent wineries include Bucher Wines, Maritana Vineyards, and Black Kite Cellars.

Sugarloaf Crush, 6705 Cristo Lane, Santa Rosa. 707-244-4885, sugarloafcrush.com. Three dozen wineries including J. Cage Cellars, Leonard Wine Company, Truett- Hurst, and Clarice Wine Company.

Grapewagon Custom Crush, 851 Magnolia Drive, Healdsburg. 707-433-4780. Over a dozen clients including Tongue Dancer, Flaunt Wine Company, and Beau Marchais.

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