September 2017 Issue of Wines & Vines

LVVR Sparkling Cellars

Lodi méthode champenoise producer fills quality niche with practical startup plan

by Ted Rieger

With U.S. sales of sparkling wines rising and demand for higher quality in California’s Lodi appellation, the timing was right for winemaker Eric Donaldson to parlay his sparkling wine experience into starting a winery. In addition to producing sparkling wines under his own label, Donaldson fills a niche providing custom services to produce méthode champenoise-style sparkling wines for other wineries.

For many years Lodi has had a bulk sparkling wine facility supplying bottled wine with custom labels to local (and out-of-area) tasting rooms, but there was no méthode champenoise producer using Lodi-grown grapes and performing the entire process within the Lodi appellation. As Donaldson observed, “Charmat (bulk) processed sparkling wines are not cutting it here anymore. Lodi appellation wineries and customers have become more knowledgeable and experienced, and they want something better.”

Donaldson’s LVVR Sparkling Cellars wines were recognized by Wine Business Monthly as one of 10 “Hot Brands of 2016,” and Donaldson believes his list of a dozen custom service clients will double by 2018. Early on, LVVR has established the ability to produce a quality product with growth potential. The equally remarkable story is how a young person in his 30s, mainly going it alone, was able to start a winery from scratch with a limited budget for producing traditional sparkling wine, which requires specialized and often expensive equipment. 

Donaldson’s résumé
A native of Ohio, Donaldson majored in botany and geography at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, with a minor in entrepreneurship. He began working in his home state’s wine industry in 2005. “My original plan was to work on the vineyard side of the industry, but then I got interested in the winemaking side and stayed there,” Donaldson told Wines & Vines. His résumé includes jobs at Valley Vineyards and Vinoklet Winery near Cincinnati and Ferrante Winery near Cleveland. He moved west to expand his experience at Alderbrook Winery in Sonoma County, and later at Southwest Wines in Deming, N.M., where he worked in large-scale sparkling wine production.

Donaldson completed the online winemaking certificate program from the University of California, Davis, Extension. He moved to Lodi in 2011 and worked at LangeTwins Vineyard and Winery while also working part-time at a wine bar and as a winemaking consultant. Donaldson first produced Lodi sparkling wine in 2012 on a consulting project for four sisters, and the LVVR brand comes from the first letters of their names—Leticia, Vanessa, Virginia and Rose. 

In Lodi, Donaldson saw an opportunity and took it. “Lodi offers good quality and good value for the grapes grown here. Everything fell into place with the connections I have here—finding equipment and an affordable location—and a lot of things lined up for this to happen,” he said. “Higher quality is being demanded here in Lodi, and in terms of traditional sparkling wine production, no one else is doing it.”

The production facility
LVVR leases 4,000 square feet of production space within a winery co-op called The Tuscan Wine Village in Lockeford, just east of Lodi. The Village is a 75,000-square-foot facility on 22 acres originally built in 1946 as the Lockeford Cooperative Winery, which processed and fermented Lodi grapes in large concrete wine tanks with capacities up to 60,000 gallons. The facility closed in the late 1970s and was vacant until 1998, when it was purchased by a construction contractor who began environmental remediation on the property and modernized the facility’s infrastructure. He cut openings and doorways in the walls of the former concrete tanks, turning them into small wine-production spaces and tasting rooms. The complex was called Vino Piazza. Several Lodi startup wineries began here before moving into their own facilities including Macchia, Stama Winery and Watts Winery.

The owner of Vino Piazza later lost the property during the recession and mortgage crisis, and it came under new ownership in 2012. Tenancy at the facility declined during the recession and ownership change, but it is on the upswing again. The facility has federal, state and local permits, provides bonded cold storage and has interior and courtyard spaces for events and private parties. Four tasting rooms are open Friday through Sunday.  Space is available for more wineries, and a bistro is scheduled to open.

LVVR’s tasting room is located in a brick-enclosed space that housed the original winery’s brandy-distilling boiler, with remnants of piping visible through the brick walls. Donaldson installed two granite-topped bars and set up a small outdoor courtyard with seating for customers to enjoy wines sold by the glass or bottle.

Donaldson said of the facility, “I was able to walk in and have electrical infrastructure and drains in place for winemaking, which can cost a lot of money to install. For a person starting a winery, to walk in and have the infrastructure we have here, plus visitor facilities, it’s a great incubator property for small, startup wineries.”

New and used equipment
Working at small and large wineries introduced Donaldson to a wide range of processes, production equipment and suppliers. He learned how to improvise, adapt equipment and keep it running to get the job done. He began acquiring equipment in 2015 that includes some new, but mostly used equipment.

“This is how a lot of small wineries start-up,” Donaldson observed. “I’ve pieced this together on a limited budget, and nothing looks too pretty, but I’m happy about where it has taken me.”

People who want to create showcase wineries would not likely purchase used equipment, but going the new route is expensive, especially for a new winery. “Appearance is often what suffers the most on used machines, but machine functionality is where I put the emphasis,” Donaldson said. “If I can find equipment that performs to spec, if I can test my crown caps and get the proper seal, get proper cork compression, and I’m able to bottle a stable product, then I’ll ride the older equipment until I have the budget to expand and upgrade.”

The winemaker locates and buys used equipment from various sources: word of mouth from industry contacts, industry classified ads and non-industry online sources. The latter include, a site specializing in industrial and commercial machinery auctions, and more general websites such as Craigslist. He also sources equipment from California Food Machinery, a Lodi-based seller of pre-owned food and beverage industry equipment.

Donaldson says good deals on used equipment can be found, but he advises due diligence and research before buying. He tries to buy local when possible, which allows for equipment inspection and saves on shipping costs. “I ask for as many photos as possible and get as much background as I can on how it was used, and I try to figure out why it was taken out of service,” he said. 

“Sometimes it’s a company selling old equipment, or they’re closing down a plant, and sometimes the winery just outgrew it to buy a larger capacity machine. In those cases you can find gems, and they may even come with extra parts.” In other cases, the machine may have died during use. He bought an older model MEB labeler that was not working but only needed a $20 sensor to get it running. He cleaned and overhauled the unit and now has a 4,000-bottle-per-hour capacity labeler bought for a fraction of the cost of a new labeler.  

When buying a used machine, he said, “I make sure there is nothing bent, nothing missing and no missing or cut wires.” Although Donaldson has no formal training in machine repair, he is mechanically inclined. He invested in a few tools, including a welder for light metal work and a multi-meter for testing electrical components. He’s developed a good relationship with a machine shop and hardware company, J. Milano Co. Inc. in nearby Stockton, that assists in repair work, parts fabrication and works with him to adapt equipment to meet his needs.

Industry suppliers also provide tech support and sell parts for used equipment. “I have Bertolaso machines, and ColloPack Solutions (the U.S. Bertolaso supplier based in Napa) has been great to work with,” Donaldson said. If the equipment has a serial number, a supplier or manufacturer’s rep can often trace the ownership and service records of specific machines. They can also provide operation and service manuals for older equipment. 

He obtained equipment and supplies from the recently shut down General Mills plant in Lodi, including a non-operating Hyster forklift. He spent more money for a new battery than it cost to buy the used forklift, but he now has a working forklift for less than $1,000.  

LVVR’s main new equipment is an automatic riddling machine, a Roto-Jolly-Due gyropalette from LAFAL in Italy, supplied through Criveller California. It has two pallet cages, each holding 504 bottles. Donaldson said this is the first unit of its kind sold in the western United States. The programmable machine comes with three standard riddling programs of four, five, or seven days. LVVR uses the seven-day cycle. This unit is expandable to four cages, something Donaldson plans to do as business increases. 

Making the wines
For the main component in current base wines, LVVR sources Chardonnay from Lodi grower Larry Castelanelli harvested at 18° to 19° Brix. Primary fermentation is in stainless steel using a PDM yeast with a goal of 10.5% to 11.5% alcohol. The LVVR base wine has been produced under a custom arrangement at different Lodi wineries for past vintages, crushing about 5 tons per vintage to date. While Donaldson expects tonnage to increase, he will continue crushing and primary fermentation at other facilities while he focuses resources on the sparkling process operations. 

He moves the base wine to his facility for bottling within five months of primary fermentation. A 260-gallon stainless-steel floating-lid tank from Criveller is used for blending and bottling. The base wine is mixed with a Lalvin DV 10 yeast and Clarifiant BK riddling aid from Scott Labs, along with sugar and nutrients prior to bottling for the secondary fermentation. The wine is sterile filtered through a Critical Process membrane filter from John Mulhern Co. of Santa Rosa, Calif. 

A 12-head Mimi filling machine (a former brand manufactured in Italy) that also had an inline corking unit was bought used from California Food Machinery Co. Donaldson converted the corker to a single-head crown capper and uses the machine for bottling and crown capping. A plastic bidule is inserted in each bottle between filling and capping to aid in consolidating lees after riddling. Bidules and crown caps are supplied by UnionPack of American Canyon, Calif. Bottles are supplied by TricorBraun WinePak of Fairfield, Calif. The crown-capped bottles are stored in bins en tirage in the cold storage warehouse at Tuscan Wine Village to go through secondary fermentation and aging. Most lots spend six to 12 months en tirage

Bottles are manually loaded into a riddling cage and put through the Roto-Jolly’s automated seven-day cycle. Rather than invest in specialized bottleneck-freezing equipment for disgorging, Donaldson uses a common floor-mounted deep freezer storage box that holds 35 bottles and freezes the neck plugs in six minutes. Donaldson fabricated a bottle rack installed in the box to hold bottles neck down.

A new Atlas model semi-automatic disgorger/dosager manufactured by Officine Pesce of Italy and supplied through Criveller pulls crown caps and expels the frozen plugs for up to 150 bottles per hour. A filler tube adds a dosage mix into each bottle that includes base wine, sugar, sulfur and CMC (carboxymethylcellulose) for cold stability.

The bottles are corked with a used Bertolaso corker, and an older model Otto Sick machine applies the wire hoods. Amorim supplies corks, and UnionPack supplies wire hoods. Front and back pressure-sensitive labels printed by MCC Multi-Color Global Label Solutions are applied with the used MEB labeler.

A CanelliTech, semi-automatic benchtop Champagne foil capsule applicator manufactured in Italy was bought new. The two-stage unit is used by manually inserting the bottleneck into two openings: The first opening pleats the foil, and the second opening does the final crimping to tighten the foil on the bottle.

Donaldson has lab supplies to perform some basic wet chemistry, but he runs analyses and quality-control tests with two commercial labs: Lodi Wine Laboratories and KSL Wine Lab in Ione, Calif. 

LVVR sparkling wines
All four current LVVR sparkling releases labeled “Traditional Method” are non-vintage, produced with a final alcohol of 12% and sell for $24 per bottle. The two main releases are a Brut and Blanc de Blanc, but all four wines are produced from the same base wine blend of 90% Chardonnay and 10% Viognier.

Donaldson learned to use Viognier while making sparkling wine in New Mexico. “Viognier adds depth, fruit and tropical aromas. It rounds out the Lodi Chardonnay profile,” he says. The Brut is off-dry with a crisp finish that is geared to go to market earlier. Donaldson is looking for more traditional, drier, Champagne-style wines with good acidity.

The LVVR rosé sparkling wine is produced by adding Alicante Bouschet to the dosage after disgorging to provide color, berry and cherry aromas. A sweeter style Demi-Sec is produced with a dosage of Muscat that can be paired with desserts. “Each one fills a different market niche, and they can be produced based on demand,” Donaldson said. About 90% of LVVR’s sales are direct through the tasting room and wine club. Some is sold locally through wine retailers and restaurants. 

Other wines in production, stored en tirage, include a 100% Pinot Noir sourced from Lodi AVA vineyards in the cooler Delta region and two blends with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir—one a 60/40 blend and one a 50/50 blend. The goal for the Pinot Noir and blends is to have two years en tirage to produce vintage-designated reserve sparkling wines. Donaldson is working on a higher end label concept with MCC Label Solutions for these wines that will include a neck band.  

Custom service growth
Donaldson foresees the winery’s business growth in custom sparkling services, with the ability to provide quality méthode champenoise wine in smaller lots. For clients looking to provide their own base wines, he provides a spec sheet that lists required chemistry parameters such as proper alcohol, pH and free SO2 levels—and to ensure no additives are present that will hinder a secondary fermentation. He currently works mainly with Lodi wineries, but service is expanding to clients from a wider geographic area. He works with wineries on small experimental lots for new products and is working with an Amador County winery on a sparkling Barbera.

Total 2016 production was about 1,500 cases. The facility has capacity to produce 6,000 cases annually with current equipment, and Donaldson performs most of the labor alone. Reflecting on his startup enterprise, Donaldson said, “l already knew about the winemaking part of it, but I had to jump into being a business owner, and that involves making smart investments with the equipment I buy.” 
Ted Rieger, CSW, is a wine journalist based in Sacramento, Calif. He has written for wine industry media since 1988. 

Ted Rieger, CSW, is a wine journalist based in Sacramento, Calif. He has written for wine industry media since 1988. 

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