In its continuous quest for quality, Spring Mountain Vineyard this past year invested $1 million in cutting-edge winemaking technology.

The technology included a heating and cooling system, Vin Wizard software to control and track fermentation, and eight Taransaud French oak fermenters.

Each of the fermenters holds 1,848 gallons of wine and has a per-unit price of more than $30,000 before installation. Because of their size, the 12-foot-tall fermenters couldn’t be brought into the winery through Spring Mountain Vineyard’s regularly used doors. They had to be laid on their sides on a moving platform and rolled circuitously through the cave network into the adjacent cellar.

They were installed in September 2011, just in time to receive the estate’s red grape varieties. In the past year, the burnished, towering oak fermenters have become icons to visitors who walk through the Spring Mountain Vineyard winery.

That the new system will heighten the quality of Spring Mountain Vineyard wines is a given, although at this point, there is insufficient data to say how much. But after using it for the first time in autumn 2011, Spring Mountain’s venerable winemaker Jac Cole is optimistic.

“We fermented in those tanks last year and have been able to look at the progress over the last 14 months. Absolutely, we see an acceleration of the polishing effect on the wines that came out of the new fermenters,” said Cole, a winemaker with more than 30 years of experience, 10 of them at Spring Mountain.

With the improvements at Spring Mountain coalescing nicely with the 2012 banner harvest in the valley, Cole expects to have a whole lot more feedback when he tastes the new wines early in 2013. Like most of the Napa Valley’s vineyards, yields were up substantially on Spring Mountain’s 225 acres of vines this year.

The foremost benefit offered by the new system, and underscoring its value, Cole said, is the oxidative condensation of tannins that occurs in the oak tanks and the precise control of temperatures inside them.

“The oak fermenters give me a major leg up in getting the tannins where I want them. I already taste the smooth, polishing effect on the wines coming out of the fermenter, before they ever go into the barrel,” he explained. “This could result in less time spent in the barrel.”

Cole is convinced that the system is well worth what Spring Mountain paid for it, partly because, he said, “We have been aware of the positive attributes of oak fermenters for some time.”

Cole used third-party endorsement from local wineries to make the improvements a reality. “It helps when you get a recommendation from the outside,” he quipped.

“The most difficult thing to quantify in our industry is how much a 10 percent improvement in quality is worth on the open market,” Cole added. “But there is a definite increase in quality because of using these tanks and having a cooling system that gives me much more control over the fermentation process, keeping it within the parameters toward the end of fermentation when I want to keep the tank warm. It’s all positive and I believe we’ve taken a step up.

“I don’t know if you can put a number on it,” he concluded, “but I would say the million-dollar investment last year was worth it.”

(Valli Ferrell, Spring Mountain Vineyard’s director of public relations, contributed to this article.)

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