September 2016 Issue of Wines & Vines

Technical Spotlight: Titus Vineyards

Family-owned estate stays in step with development of Napa Valley

by Andrew Adams
Titus Vineyards winery
The new winery is located in Napa Valley, north of St. Helena on the Silverado Trail.

Since moving to Napa County in the 1960s, the Titus family has watched the area change drastically while adapting its own wine business in response to those changes.

The family has been growing grapes in Napa Valley since 1970, started making their own wine in 1990 and just last year finished building an estate winery north of St. Helena, Calif., in time for the 2015 harvest.

When Lee and Ruth Titus brought their family to the area in the 1960s, the Napa Valley was undeveloped and the outside world had little interest in the small valley. Lee Titus was a radiologist who set up a practice in the nearby town of Sonoma, Calif. The couple loved wine and wanted a vineyard of their own.

“At that time—and I remember because we got dragged around with our parents looking at properties—everything was for sale,” recalled Phil Titus. “Basically there was so much to choose from at that time, and they just drove around Calistoga, St. Helena, Rutherford and looked at different pieces of property.”


  • While the Titus family has grown grapes in Napa Valley for nearly 50 years, the winery was just completed in 2015.
  • A small but efficient cellar provides all the necessary tank space for estate wines.
  • The winery's hospitality areas are vital to the company's focus on DtC sales for future sales growth.

The couple eventually settled on a 32-acre vineyard property and closed on it in 1969. Lee Titus later bought a 10-acre parcel that was home to a burned-down farmhouse and abandoned prune orchard on nearby Ehlers Lane in 1972, and in 1976 he bought about 18 acres of pasture land adjacent to the southern edge of the first property.

Phil Titus and his brother Eric would eventually take over the family vineyard business and winery; they recently spoke with Wines & Vines about their new winery and the history of the family business.

When Lee Titus bought the 32 acres of vineyards, some of them predated Prohibition and were planted to a hodge-podge of varieties. “It was a typical vineyard of the time,” Eric Titus said. “It was largely Zinfandel that was probably the biggest single variety, but there was Carignan, there was Burger, Mondeuse, a little Sémillon and there was even a block of Pinot Noir.”

The Titus brothers believe the property had been planted with vines as far back as the early 1900s, when it may have been owned by “the Frenchman,” who sold it to the Nagel family that in turn sold it to the Miamis who sold it to the Titus family.

Despite its heritage, the vineyard was in need of replanting. “The Burger (grapes) were the most disgusting sacks of water, and the Chasselas or the Palomino was just pulp: There was no juice,” Phil Titus recalled.

Fortuitously for the family, Lee Titus chose to plant Bordeaux varieties and Zinfandel, and he had picked up some tips from a few of his neighbors who were longtime growers. “Our dad was a pretty smart guy as a radiologist, but when it came to grapegrowing he was kind of a neophyte, so he made friends with some of the locals here,” Phil Titus said. “The name for rootstock for him was St. George. He didn’t have any clairvoyance not to plant AXR1; it’s just the Zin is planted very much in the old way.”

Planted in 1977, that dry-farmed Zinfandel is still going strong and can often be one of the most productive vineyard blocks of the estate. “It seemed to go through kind of a quiet period seven or eight years ago, when we thought it was in decline, and then it just woke up again in 2012 and we’ve had really good crops.”

While the family dream had been to open a winery, the brothers said they didn’t start to make wine under the Titus Vineyards label until 1990. Production stayed small for the next 10 years, and eventually the brothers took over when it became clear their father had no interest in the modern wine industry. “As much as he loved growing grapes, he didn’t really like the wine business,” Phil Titus said.

Their father enjoyed a simpler version of the wine business, in which vintners sold their wares either to the neighbors or a few clients. “The picture that he liked was the barrel of wine in the cellar and drawing off a jug, and the neighbors coming and buying it,” Eric Titus said.

Phil Titus said that when his father got a taste of label design, compliance, packaging decisions and working with distributors, he decided to stick to the vineyard. “He was the first to recognize, ‘This is not what I want to do,’ so Eric came in and we bought out their investments in what they put in for the startup costs,” Phil Titus said. “They were very gracious. They kind of stayed involved, but at the same time they wanted to know what was going on, they just left us alone.”

Eric Titus had come back to the Napa Valley after a career in marine biology. While his brother had been traveling around the world, Phil Titus had pursued winemaking at the University of California, Davis, and worked at a few Napa wineries. After taking over the family business, Eric Titus focused on the vineyard side while Phil handled winemaking.

In 1990, Phil Titus had also been named winemaker at Chappellet, and the Pritchard Hill winery served as the custom-crush home of the Titus brand for the next two decades.

Back in the early 1990s, there weren’t as many wineries producing boutique, small-vineyard Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, so the brothers said sales were brisk from the start. The family produced just a few hundred cases for the first few vintages, but that steadily increased until 2008, when they were making close to 10,000 cases.

Plans for a winery take shape
By then, Chappellet had little extra space for custom-crush clients, so the brothers began to seriously consider building an estate winery. They moved their wine to Laird Family Estate in north Napa and hired a consultant for a winery-use permit.

Then the recession struck.

“We just realized we had bigger fish to fry,” Eric Titus said. “We just needed to worry about staying in business and moving inventory. We had a lot of wine in the pipeline, too.”

Plans for a winery were put on hold, and Eric Titus said he focused on building the winery’s wine club to boost its direct-to-consumer sales, which helped get them through the worst of the recession and also made them realize their own winery was the only way to ensure future success. “We tried doing it through a wine club and building that organically, and we had limited success. But we just realized that when you’re fighting it out in the wholesale market with everybody else and just driving the margins down, that our best bet was really to build a winery. Finally the attitude was: If not now, when?”

It was in early 2012 when the brothers restarted the planning and permit process by hiring a consultant who helped them get final approval from the county planning commission in early 2014.

Once they had their required permits from the county, the brothers hired Matt Hollis and MH Architects in San Francisco as their architect and started planning the winery. “We really just told them, ‘Here are the guidelines: We don’t have a ton of money, it’s all self-financed, and there is a limit to what you can spend,’” Eric Titus said. “So we kind of got that out of the way.”

Phil Titus said they had first thought of a very traditional structure similar to a classic barn. During the permit process, however, they learned they would need to build the winery on an earthen berm that would range in height from 5 to 8 feet as their property lies in the flood plain of the Napa River. That would have meant a barn towering some 60 feet over the surrounding vineyards.

Instead of a hindrance, Hollis saw the potential of the berm to take advantage of the site’s views of the Napa Valley. “He got this whole view thing figured out in his head way ahead of us,” Phil Titus said. “It really turned out he had it dialed in from the beginning.”

The Titus’ property is at the northern half of the Napa Valley, where it begins to narrow as the mountains from the east and west begin to encroach upon the valley floor. The winery is tucked into a bend of the road and has the feeling of being surrounded by vineyards and mountains while still clearly visible from the road. A back deck offers an unbroken view of vineyards that stretch to the Napa River and redwood covered mountains spanning the horizon.

Because of the building’s position on the berm, the design team at MH Architects sought to keep the building’s height and general profile to a minimum. The main tasting room has bar space as well as tables and private areas, and it is connected to the outdoor area with a set of sliding glass doors that stretch across a 24-foot wide opening.

Advantages of an estate winery
Winemaker Stephen Cruzan joined the winery in August 2014, just after major construction was complete. Cruzan met Phil Titus while he was working at Chappellet and took the job at Titus Vineyards after working for three years as the assistant winemaker at CADE on Howell Mountain.

After working at the new winery for nearly a year, Cruzan said he’s come to appreciate how well the building design incorporates the vineyard and cellar. “I think it’s really cool that the roll-up doors for the barrel room and for the tank room are glass, so even when they’re down you see right through, and those views are never interrupted,” he said. “I think it gives people who visit a really neat feeling that they’re very connected to the winemaking process and the vineyard, and it makes the place feel very open.”

The new winery offers the winemaking team the advantage of the grapes being just a short tractor ride from the covered crush pad.

Eric Titus said the 2015 harvest typically began at around 6 a.m., and the grapes would start arriving at 8 a.m. Cruzan said it’s easy for him to know exactly how many tanks he needs to fill in a certain day, and there’s no need to make pick decisions based on whether there’s an open tank at the custom-crush winery.

The grapes are delivered in half-ton MacroBins and dumped with a forklift into a Carlsen & Associates elevated conveyor. The conveyor empties in to a Delta Oscillys destemmer from Bucher Vaslin that sends destemmed berries onto a Bucher sorting table for a round of manual sorting. An Evoveneta must pump from Criveller then pushes the sorted berries via a hose over the top hatch of closed-top stainless-steel tanks.

A portion of the berries get broken by the must pump and transfer providing a mix of whole and crushed fruit. “We want a nice variety of whole berries and crushed berries,” Cruzan said. “I think if we crushed every grape we’d wind up with too tannic wines.”

Cruzan said he was impressed with the Delta Oscillys, which is a relatively new destemmer that uses the cylindrical force of swinging destemming cages to gently spring the berries free of their stems. The machine tended to leave the hard raisins on the stems while treating the whole berries rather gently. “Any stems that came through were really pretty big actually; they were really easy for the sorters to pick out, so the fruit going into the must pump was really clean,” Cruzan said, adding there weren’t too many of the small, green jacks either.

After a cold soak of three to five days, the must is inoculated with yeast to initiate fermentation, which is typically rather short and warm and conducted with BBX or RP 15. The goal is for quick, efficient extraction of flavor and color and then to get the wine down in barrels. Each fermentation receives about two pumpovers per day with goose-neck irrigators from Carlsen & Associates. “We would prefer to be aggressive up front and get our tannin out and be able to really control the amount of tannin we get and then just get it off the skins and let things go dry in the barrel,” Cruzan said.

Eric Titus said he and his brother have done several trials with extended maceration but have found that pressing sweet results in a more balanced wine profile. “The color is all there, the extraction is there that you need, and anything after that is just going to be affecting the aromatics and flavor profile,” he said. “With so much extraction you have to lay it down for a long time, and when it’s ready to drink the fruit will have started to fade.”

The winery is equipped for at least two tank turns per harvest and has five 10-ton fermentors, two 4-ton tanks and five 7-ton tanks. All of the tanks were built by Santa Rosa Stainless Steel, which also did the catwalks and metal railings on the crush pad. Tank temperature is controlled and monitored with a TankNet system.

A Technova 50 press from Diemme Enologia is used for both reds and whole-cluster pressing of whites. The reds are usually pressed between 1° and 5° Brix and then transferred to a mix of new and neutral Hungarian, French and American oak barrels.

The Napa Valley Cabernet ages in about 50% new oak, and of that 50% is Hungarian, 30% French and the rest is American. The reserve wines age in in about 85% to 90% new French oak.

Cruzan said the No. 1 barrel he buys is made of Hungarian oak from Trust International Corp., because it’s a consistent, high-end barrel that performs as well as any French barrel and costs about 200 euros less. Other cooperages used at the winery include Tonnellerie Remond, Nadalie USA and American oak from Canton Cooperage and AP John Coopers.

Once the wine is ready for bottling, it’s bottled onsite by Ryan Mobile Bottling. Cruzan said the berm offers another advantage in that Titus Vineyards is one of the few small wineries he knows with a loading dock that makes the mobile bottling process quicker and easier.

And there’s one hell of a hose rack that runs alongside a railing on the edge of the crush pad near the loading dock.

“I’m very proud of the hose rack,” said Phil Titus, with just a bit of exaggerated pride. “We had so little space, and we got down to the end and it was the last available, uncommitted piece of property, and we’re like, ‘That’s it, that’s our hose rack.’ I think we have the best hose rack in Napa Valley.”

While MH Architects provided the overall design, the brothers worked with a winery consultant to maximize the use of every square foot of their self-financed winery. “We actually picked up 100 barrels of space by reconfiguring the tank room,” Phil Titus said.

It’s the winery the family business needed to adopt to a changed industry. A small, efficient winery provides sufficient winemaking space, while a well-designed hospitality area offers an invaluable experience for potential direct-to-consumer customers. “You can’t count on the wholesale markets to hit your profitability goals,” Eric Titus said, adding that he’s planning a big jump in DtC business to reach about 20% by sales volume this year. “That was a big part of our final decision to do the winery.”

It’s not the simple, rustic cellar and vineyard their father may have envisioned, but it’s the type of winery required in what Napa Valley has become.

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