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The sauvignon blanc was well-textured, multi-layered, presenting grassy notes with an exceptionally crisp mouth feel. The syrah had good color, a rich, bolder character and, once again, that crisp bite.

Both varietals were extremely dry, delivered a pleasingly salty finish and would pair nicely with tapenades or patés. 

Both varietals were also served from a plate, not a wine glass, and were examples of the innovative WholeVine product line being developed by Santa Rosa-based SonomaCeuticals. 

The “varietals” with the salty finish were actually crispy crackers made from flour produced from high-pedigree grape seeds and grape skins, a by-product of fine wine production. Normally discarded and used for compost, these seeds and skins are also a source for delicious, nutritious food ingredients, according to SonomaCeuticals co-founders Barbara Banke and Peggy Furth. 

The two vintners — Banke is chairwoman of Jackson Family Wines and Furth is former proprietor of Chalk Hill Vineyards — created the company in 2009 to explore the better use of grape pomace. Since then, SonomaCeuticals has conducted research and developed various processes for converting grape seeds and skins into culinary products, including gluten-free flours and varietal grape seed oils sold under the WholeVine brand. Much of this research and product development is conducted at the SonomaCeuticals lab in Napa. 

At a recent open house at the Kendall-Jackson Wine Center near Santa Rosa, guests sampled crackers, cookies and pizza made from WholeVine grape seed and skin flours. At another table were eight varietal-specific grape seed oils, each with its distinct body, aroma and flavor profile.  

“We knew we could make grape seed oil,” Banke explained, “and that there was already grape seed oil available. It turns out, though, that most of (what was available) was solvent-extracted and very neutral in flavor. When we started doing this process with the varietal grape oils we found that they’re totally different. Each varietal has different flavors and they are naturally processed.”

As with wine tasting, guests at the open house sampled through a variety of oils and snacks, often remarking on the clear differences in the flavor profiles of both the varietal oils and the crackers baked with grape seed and skin flours. The flavor differences were harder to discern in the cookies offered to guests. These are made from proprietary blends of WholeVine’s varietal flours and, despite the addictive nature of the morsels, tasted healthier than your typical calorie-laden high-end cookie.  

The potential nutritional benefits of WholeVine’s grape seed and skin flours add to the allure of the innovative product, according to SonomaCeuticals General Manager Paul Novak. 

“What you find using our flours is that if you use five to ten per cent in products you can, in a positive way, significantly impact flavor, texture and nutrition. When you taste the foods made with these flours people usually say ‘These are great.’ The flours let chefs and bakers add another row of flavor compound into their cooking. That’s what gets us really excited.”

 

Shared interests

The SonomaCeuticals/WholeVine project was borne out of a shared interest in philanthropy and sustainable production practices, Furth said. She and Banke are well known for their charitable efforts in Sonoma County and beyond. 

“It started with sustainability but in an interesting way,” she said. “It started with how Barbara and I would sustain the Sonoma Paradiso Fund at the Community Foundation (of Sonoma County) to help children in need.” 

Banke said that for many years, a large portion of the charity’s funding was being generated through an annual wine auction. At the onset of the financial downturn in 2008, the pair began looking for a more stable funding mechanism. 

“The Charity Wine Auction started to go downhill a little bit,” Banke said. “We were putting in all of the effort and getting half the proceeds and the charity still needed money. So we thought, ‘Why don’t we just start a company that would produce profits at some point that we could put into these charities and maybe they would have a more sustainable income stream?’”

The pair also shared a passion for sustainable farming and production practices, Furth said.

“In a literature search,” she recalled, “I found a paper from the Department of Enology in Athens, Greece that started off saying ‘We are Europeans … we waste nothing.’ I thought, gee, the corollary is we are Americans and we throw everything away. So we began to look at what they (the Greeks) were doing with grape pomace. It was being used for cattle feed and there were bio-oils and bio-char, a few compounds and there was grape seed oil but no grape seed flour or grape skin flour. It was the spark that started this.” 

“The more we study it,” Banke added, “the more we realize that after winemaking there is a lot left over in the grape seeds and grape skins in terms of nutrition.”

This is particularly true, Furth noted, in grapes grown for high-quality wines. 

“There are differences that you can taste (in wines) from the coastal, higher-elevation fine-wine vineyards … the things that make the wines taste better and create the value and price points,” Furth said. “Those same differences relate to nutritional components and pure compounds (found in the pomace).”

 

Working with Davis

Furth said the company is working with researchers at UC Davis to further understand potential uses and benefits of the various compounds found in grape seeds and skins. Much of this research is being conducted at SonomaCeutical’s Napa lab, where Research & Development chemist Rebecca Lipson focuses on developing new uses for the by-product material. 

“We’re doing research and development for other potential products,” Lipson said, “particularly the natural colors that can be derived from grapes. Since they are from a grape, these can potentially be used for food coloring and cosmetics.”

Lipson said that in studying the compounds and chemical components present in the pomace, she has found significant differences between both grape varietals and how grapes are grown. 

“One thing that my research kind of confirms is the differences between the (the components in) wine grapes grown for quantity versus the wine grapes grown for quality,” she said. “The other things that are interesting to look at are some compounds like flavanols.”

 

Good for you, too?

The flavanols present in grapes and other foods are widely recognized for their beneficial, anti-oxidant properties. Lipson referred to a graph showing differences in the levels of the flavanol epicatechin among various wine grapes. Epicatechin is also found in cocoa and considered a highly beneficial compound by many nutritional researchers. According to Lipton’s chart, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc grapes possess extremely high levels of epecatechin compared to other common wine grape varieties. Another chart shows cabernet sauvignon skins containing significantly higher levels of iron.

“The bottom line is that there are some of these compounds that have indications that they are good to include in your diet,” Lipson said. “And there are differences by (grape) variety. Previous research at UC Davis has shown that where you grow the grapes and what temperature you’re growing the grapes affects the levels of these compounds in the grapes.”

As research continues, SonomaCeuticals is moving ahead with commercial production of its line of oils and flour. Within 

48 hours of pressing at the winery, grape seeds and skins are run through a drying machine at the company’s 15,000-square-foot production facility in Santa Rosa. Each variety is dried separately to a precise moisture level in a massive, stainless-steel tumbler that runs nonstop during harvest. Once dry, the seeds and skins can be stored for processing throughout the year. Seeds are cold-pressed for oils and then processed into flour. Skins are used only for flour. 

The group is working with professional bakers and chefs to further refine the WholeVine product line. The flours contain no additives, are gluten-free and “are the pure expression of the grape seed and skin,” Furth said.  

“We’re finding anecdotally and through some shelf-stability trials that these flours have an affinity for moisture,” Furth continued, “they tend to hold moisture and therefore keep baked goods fresher for a few days longer than other flours.” 

Banke said that bakers and researchers continue to discover nutritional and practical benefits of the WholeVine flours.

“It turns out that it has natural preservative effects, it has a lot of fiber and protein content,” she said. “If you put it on a cereal … say 5 percent ... it will bring up the protein and the fiber and probably help preserve the cereal. It’s sort of an anti-fungal, anti-bacterial substance.”

Banke also pointed to natural sunscreen compounds found in grapes that may have uses in cosmetics and other products.  

“There are other things you can do,” she indicated, “and we’re just scratching the surface now.”

The company is offering a few WholeVine products for sale through its website wholevine.com, including grape seed oils and cookies. As production grows, Banke said, she and Furth hope they can soon achieve their twin goals relating to philanthropy and sustainability. 

“Part of being sustainable is to have less waste,” Banke said. “If we do this and it actually succeeds, we can get to an almost zero-waste situation in our wineries. That’s really intriguing.”

“We’re taking steps,” she continued, speaking of generating sufficient income to pass on to charity. “We’re getting there.  Right now, we don’t have enough product to sell to bigger accounts because we’re just starting out. But maybe after this harvest, we will.”

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