Vineyard 29, with a winery located up a steep hill just north of St. Helena, is using a variety of advanced machinery to improve its wines.

“Our idea is, ‘If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it,’” said Chuck McMinn, who co-owns Vineyard 29 with his wife, Anne.

Soil probes, sap-flow sensors, gravity-flow equipment, and aerial photographs taken with an infrared filter are just a few of the tools employees at Vineyard 29 employ to make its full-bodied reds, including the Aida Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Aida Estate Zinfandel, and Estate Cabernet Franc.

McMinn, who purchased the property with Anne in 2000, said his years of experience as a startup founder and engineering executive in Silicon Valley helped him develop “a high tolerance for uncertainty.”

“Fifty percent of a wine’s quality is where the vine is planted. Another 25 percent is the weather, that big swing between daytime highs and nighttime lows we see in Napa Valley. The last 25 percent is what you do with the grapes in the winery,” said McMinn.

Gravity flow

One of the most revolutionary sets of equipment, the gravity-flow tank and elevator, is located just a short walk inside the front door. In a dark corner, close to a small lab where winemakers run tests, sits a huge cylindrical stainless steel tank.

“The 1,300-gallon tank is in a pit 30 feet in the ground. We lift up the tank 60 feet and connect hoses to it. The gravity carries the wine to tanks and barrels located below,” said McMinn.

The gravity-flow technique does not use pumps or mechanical force. This means the fruit does not get bruised or agitated, which limits browning and bitterness.

Winemaker Keith Emerson said gravity-flow refines the wine’s texture and taste. “If you pump the grapes, seeds can get chopped up. This results in an astringent taste in the finish. With gravity-flow, the texture is more velvety,” he added.

Tim Mills, Vineyard 29 assistant winemaker, said computer monitoring for the tanks help significantly. “We use a track and trace system to control every movement of wine in the building. There’s no potential for cross-contamination,” said Mills.

Picking flavorful berries

Vineyard 29 uses fruit grown in four different vineyards, all within the St. Helena sub-appellation. These include the “29 Estate,” the hillside vineyard next to the winery; the Aida Estate, two miles north of the 29 Estate on a rolling, rocky valley floor; and two new properties on the north and south end of St. Helena. Vineyard 29 recently purchased a five-acre parcel on Zinfandel Lane. It also bought an 11-acre site on Pratt Avenue, where 10 acres of vines need to be replanted.

At the Aida and Vineyard 29 properties, employees use sap-flow sensors on representative vines in the blocks. The sensors determine the general amount of specific water usage at each site. McMinn and Emerson correlate this number with the amount of water provided to determine how often the vines need to be watered.

They also use soil probes to measure the amount of water in the ground, and data from weather stations to track atmospheric conditions. The winery takes aerial photographs with an infrared filter to reveal whether the vines are healthy. Areas with less healthy growth that enlarge over time may need more pest control or soil amendments to improve their chemical and physical properties.

McMinn said he is also engaging in “complete machine planting” on the new parcels.

“We’re placing the vines at exactly the right GPS coordinates, spaced so they can be machine-leafed, hedged, and harvested. We will be able to move the optical sorter on a truck into the vineyards and sort the grapes immediately. This way we won’t have grapes sitting out in bins at the vineyard. The berries will be more flavorful and less stressed,” said McMinn.

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Emerson said the labor shortage and cost were the impetus for mechanizing harvesting and sorting.

“We used to have 18 to 20 people on the crush pad processing eight tons of grapes per day. We began trying out the optical sorter in 2010. In 2016, we purchased the equipment. We’re now sorting up to 20 tons a day with three people,” he added.

The gentle, low-impact sorter moves grapes evenly across a shaker table. As the grapes move, a camera takes multiple pictures of them. The camera then sorts the grapes by color, shape, and size. One hundred twenty compressed air nozzles shoot wrinkled, over-ripe, or unripe grapes into the “bad trough.”

“When people sort grapes by eye, they tend to pick out green and pink berries. They miss dimpled, raisined berries or too-dark ones. This leads to the flavor of the wine being overripe,” said Emerson.

He added the 2016 wines are already “more polished and more graceful, with bigger power” than earlier releases.

Showcasing the taste

Pairing the wines with food allows Vineyard 29 to explain what makes its flavors stand out. Chef Daniel Sanchez, now a private chef and owner of DGS Culinary in Napa, creates bites with seasonal and often locally sourced ingredients.

Vineyard 29’s 2015 Cabernet Franc is complex with generous fruit and beautiful balance.

“It pairs very nicely with many types of savory dishes,” said Vicki Glass, international sales director and brand ambassador for Vineyard 29.

In contrast, the 2015 Aida Estate Cabernet Sauvignon is a fuller-bodied wine with layers of dark fruit.

“(It has) a velvety mouthfeel and long finish, and is an ideal pairing with fine cuts of meat. It also promises longevity in the cellar,” said Glass.

In the coming year, Vineyard 29 is interested in installing a biofiltration system to reuse wastewater for irrigation, she said.

“The BioFiltro system is composed of massive beds of earthworms on wood shavings. The worms digest suspended solids (small particles suspended in water) and effectively clean the wastewater,” said Glass.

McMinn said Vineyard 29 has already significantly reduced its carbon footprint by generating power on-site using microturbines. The winery recovers the waste heat generated by this process to heat all of the winery’s water.

In early July, Vineyard 29 signed onto the Porto Protocol. This sustainable global initiative allows businesses to share best practices in climate change mitigation.

Glass said, “Chuck discovered Vineyard 29 in 1999 by bidding on a six-liter of (the winery’s) Cabernet Sauvignon at a St. Helena Hospital charity auction. Back then, the property was just a house on a hill with some vineyard land, owned by Thomas Paine and Teresa Norton. Neighbors Dick and Ann Grace of Grace Family Vineyards said Tom and Teresa could make amazing wine from this special property, so they did. A lot of experimentation was involved to create the striking, smooth wines with supple, refined tannins that we have today.”

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