Crocker & Starr Brings Winemaking Home

Technical Spotlight: Estate winery fulfills 20 years of planning and dreaming

by Jim Gordon
Opened in time for the 2016 harvest, the Crocker & Starr estate winery features a mix of sophisticated crush pad equipment and cellar controls.

St. Helena, Calif.—It’s not uncommon for a winery startup to use a custom-crush facility for a few years while the brand is building a reputation, and Napa Valley’s Crocker & Starr is no exception. Winemaker and co-owner Pam Starr made the first wines in 1997 at the Napa Wine Company in Oakville, Calif., six miles down Highway 29 from where the grapes were grown on the 114-acre property in St. Helena that co-owner Charlie Crocker had bought in 1971.

In 1997 she began dreaming of building a dedicated winery. But it was not until the 20th vintage in 2016 that Starr’s dream was realized. In between those two dates the University of California, Davis, graduate and former winemaker for Spottswoode Vineyard and Winery had more than enough time to design the winery in her mind.

While sharing space and equipment with dozens of other winemakers, she mentally outfitted a dream winery with everything she would need to coddle the estate’s Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and other wine grapes grown on 85 acres of vines. “Oh my God, I dreamt about it every day I was there,” Starr said. “I would dream, I would reconfigure. I’ve been designing my whole life, whether it be a wine, a label or in this case a winery.”

Gesturing around the 10,000-square-foot winery that eventually materialized on Dowdell Lane about a quarter-mile east of Highway 29 at the southeast end of St. Helena, she added, “Really this was all about being able to put as much flexibility in the winemaking program as possible for the physical aspects of it. Now we can run 100 tons through this winery with three people.”

She and Crocker were cautiously conservative and wanted to wait until the winery’s sales generated enough money to pay for its own facility. But they hadn’t planned to wait 20 years.

By 2006 Crocker & Starr wines had earned accolades from critics and a good following among consumers. “Charlie and I realized we were spending as much to use a custom-crush facility as it would be to finance a building,” Starr said. “Either to rent one or pay for a new one over time.”

They commissioned preliminary plans from the San Francisco architectural firm of Taylor Lombardo and applied for a winery permit but got turned down by the city of St. Helena. “They are not easy,” Crocker said, “and that’s a euphemism for being damned difficult.”

With progress stalled, Starr continued to make the wine at the Napa Wine Company while in 2009 the partners opened an estate tasting room for a few visitors per day by appointment only. Crocker and Starr continued to strategize about getting the needed city approval until, as Crocker put it, “We finally found a city council that understood what we wanted to do,” which was largely to convert the estate-owned grapes into wine without trucking them off the property.

The city granted their permit in August 2014, and construction began in 2015. The winery was ready for the harvest of 2016, in time for Crocker & Starr’s 20th vintage.

Taylor Lombardo Architects designed a building that pays homage to Italian 16th-century architect Andrea Palladio, whose buildings in the Veneto region Crocker had admired. He said they typically have a central, large stone section with a balcony on the second floor, and two wings extending out on either side, and that’s the general layout of the winery. “The exterior is meant to have what I call a tie to the great classics,” he said. "This is a kind of a melange or mix of a whole series of Palladian buildings.”

The front of the winery is faced with local stone, giving the Palladian effect even though the entire structure was built from pre-fab sections of thermal-insu- lated aluminum exterior panels on a steel framework by Metallic Building Co. The panels were manufactured off site before an eight-week construction period supervised by general contractor Cary Associates during which the walls and sloping shed roof took shape.

Outside stairs lead up to a second-story balcony that opens into a mezzanine level tasting area inside. Just beneath, the ground-floor doors lead into the central room, where grape processing and fermentation takes place.

A right turn from the central room leads to the east cellar, where Sauvignon Blanc ferments and ages in a combination of oak barrels, 70-gallon steel barrels by Mueller and concrete ovoid tanks by Oeuf de Beaune, Mark Nomblot’s new French company. Starr soon will have a half-dozen “eggs” when the current four are supplemented by two new ones that come with bases that can be moved more easily on pallet forks. To the left is the west cellar, devoted to red wines maturing in barrels by Bossuet, Darnajou, Orion, Taransaud and Sylvain.

The two barrel rooms have cooling and ventilation built in and are sealed off from the outside and the other rooms by insulated slide-up doors, 10 feet wide for the interior ones and 12 feet for the exterior doors. A Smart Fog system provides humidity control. Starr takes advantage of these conditions to use one or the other barrel room for cold soaking, to ferment Sauvignon Blanc at 50°F or to warm barrels to encourage malolactic fermentation.

An unanticipated advantage of the rooms being so well sealed and ventilated was that Starr and associate winemaker Evyn Cameron were able to shut the doors during the wildfires in October 2017 and keep the ambient smoke away from the wine. Swapping out the standard filter media in the ventilation system for combination HEPA and charcoal elements, they were able to clean the smoke from the winery air in six hours, Starr said.

The winery has numerous windows, some placed high up on the walls so that ambient light provides enough illumination for most normal daytime cellar work.

In addition, when interior and exterior doors are opened, there is a clean line of sight through the whole building and out to the estate vineyard stretching to the Napa River.

Even though most of the crush operations happen inside the central room, the contractors laid a wide concrete and gravel driveway around the building, large enough to allow a mobile bottling line, tractor-trailers picking up case goods and large fire vehicle to circumnavigate the winery when necessary.

Crush operations inside
The Crocker & Starr crush equipment is light and mobile enough that Cameron and cellar master Samantha Johnson can roll the pieces into place in the middle of the winery’s central bay in less than 15 minutes using only their muscles and a manual pallet jack. The whole operation takes place inside to keep the fruit cool, and the doors are closed to keep fruit flies and yellow jackets at bay.

Starr said she intentionally selected the pieces of the processing chain from multiple suppliers. “We spread ourselves around instead of having one full complete system,” she said. “I didn’t want to compromise one piece just to have one great, fantastic price that I might have gotten from a single manufacturer. So I asked some of the suppliers if they would give me stand-alone prices, and they were pretty cooperative.”

Vineyard crews deliver the grapes in stackable 40-pound boxes by API Kirk containers and 4-feet-by-4-feet MacroBins. Then, for red-wine grapes the flow goes up one elevator, down through a destemmer, over a shaker table for sorting and then up another elevator to the tops of stainless-steel tanks for fermentation.

The first elevator, a 4500 model by Diemme Enologia, lifts the whole bunches from a grape- receiving hopper supplied by Collopack to the top of a Bucher Vaslin Delta Oscillys destemmer, which opens wide for maintenance and has internal washing nozzles that make it easy to clean in five minutes, Starr said.

The destemmer discharges to a berry-sorting shaker table that was made by Burgstahler Machine Works, which is located practically next door in St. Helena. An air knife blows MOG out and away from the stream of berries and can be adjusted minutely to suit the winemaker’s level of pickiness. Cameron showed photos from the 2017 harvest of a small bin full of raisins that the air knife deftly knocked out of the fruit flow. A sump catches any free-run juice at this stage, but Starr says she rarely uses it.

A second, taller elevator made by Burgstahler lifts the whole berries from a Burgstahler hopper to the level of the catwalk on top of the stainless-steel fermentors made by Criveller. There are four 7-ton tanks, four 5-ton tanks and two 2-ton models. With a little maneuvering of the processing line and proper aiming of the conveyor, the crew has been able to reach the top ports of the tanks on both sides of the central cellar with only the aid of a jerry-rigged plastic and duct-tape “snout” to bridge from the top of the conveyor to the tank lid on top. For 2018 they have a proper steel snout ready to go.

The winery is equipped with a TankNET system and fully jacketed Criveller tanks. Each tank features its own pump and pumpover system.

Optimizing the tanks
The jacketed Criveller tanks and the equipment with which they would be outfitted were a central part of Starr’s lengthy dreaming/planning process. Each fermentor is equipped with its own pump and pumpover system, a removable sieve-like cage that covers the tank outlet valve from inside to allow the juice out while keeping the skins inside, and a hot-water cleaning setup that’s forceful enough to remove tartrates. These measures enable a no-entry policy on the tanks to insure safety.

“The only reason to put your butt in the tank is to lock in the cage, but that’s when the tank is empty,” Starr said. “The tanks are heated and cooled by water only. Each tank is its own enclosed system. We save water, we save energy, we save our energy, we save ourselves.”

Citing the wildfire smoke, Cameron pointed out that the tanks, as closed systems that don’t use sumps for tank mixing, also were effective in excluding smoky air from entering them during pumpovers.

The winemakers monitor and control the automated features via a TankNET web-based temperature-control and fermentation-management system. The tanks use two types of must irrigators, a Lotus pumpover head by Vintuitive Winemaking Tools and another type made by Burgstahler with a longer arm finished on each end with a spinning disk that spreads the must widely in the bigger tanks.

To inoculate or not
When the fruit for Crocker & Starr’s red wines goes into the tanks, it gets a cold soak for typically four days. After the wine has warmed itself, they will let it start fermenting without a yeast addition, then add a commercial strain to take over.

Starr said it was an interesting challenge to decide what, if any, yeast strain to introduce into the building. “That’s one thing about a new facility. You have to decide to inoculate your building or not. I thought long and hard about it, and I felt like the smart thing to do was to inoculate this place with a really strong finisher.”

She picked a Saccharomyces bayanus strain that she counts on for its highalcohol tolerance and cold-temperature tolerance. She added 2 pounds per 1,000 gallons during the first harvest, instead of the more typical 0.5 to 1 pound per 1,000 gallons.

The estate grapes generally have naturally low titratable acidity in the 5-grams-per-liter range and low pH at the same time, Cameron said, adding that nutrients are added when needed. Fermentations follow a normal bell curve and top out in the low-80s-degree range. Malolactic culture is sometimes added, some- times not. When malolactic does not occur before the wines reach dryness and are pressed, they will inoculate in the barrels.

Starr ferments a portion of the red wine in 132-gallon puncheons. A crew member removes a barrel head, puts the grapes inside, closes the head and mounts the puncheon on an OXOline rack that lets the barrel be spun by hand to mix the must rather than requiring punchdowns. Cameron said, “Through the tannin and sweet wood that we have in the new barrel, and the tannin and the sweet juice that we have, it makes this amazing combination. It’s not overwhelming at all. At other places sometimes the oak takes over, but that does not happen here at all.”

After fermentation, red wines spend 18 to 20 months in barrels. The percentage of new oak depends on the grape variety and vineyard block. Cabernet Franc and Malbec mature in 50 to 60% new barrels, and Cabernet Sauvignon sees 75 to 80% new oak.

Annual case production is about 3,500, spread across seven wines. The current releases consist of 500 cases of the 2017 Sauvignon Blance priced at $34 and made from 100% estate fruit; 600 cases of $19 Bridesmaid Sauvignon Blanc; 548 cases of $80 Crocker Estate Cabernet Franc; 1,050 cases of $50 Bridesmaid Red, a Franc-based Bordeaux-style blend; 299 cases of $65 RLC Cabernet Sauvignon; 434 cases of $120 Stone Place Crocker Estate Cabernet Sauvignon; 91 cases of $200 Post 1 Crocker Estate Cabernet Sauvignon; and 255 cases of an $80 blend (55% Malbec, 45% Cabernet Sauvignon) called Casali, also estate-grown.

How a 20-year partnership began
The partnership that Charlie Crocker and Pam Starr struck in 1997 is a straightforward one. Crocker — from a prominent San Francisco family whose business ventures had included building a railroad and founding a bank — brought his land and his existing vines to the deal, and Starr, with a fermentation-science degree and 18 years working in wineries, brought the winemaking skills. The two are co-owners of Crocker & Starr, and Starr is the winemaker and general manager.

Crocker had bought the property in 1971 and planted Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon from 1978 to 1980. The property already had a long history in grapes and wine dating from 1872, when James Dowdell purchased 25 acres here, later adding at least 36 more adjacent acres and planted Zinfandel, Riesling and hops, according to the winery’s research. The Dowdell brandy house and winery opened in 1886 and produced 50,000 gallons of wine.

In 1997 Starr was winemaker for Spottswoode Vineyard and Winery but was thinking about starting a wine-consulting business when she visited the Crocker vineyard and liked the site and soils. Crocker and Starr soon met, had several discussions about making wine and later that year reached the agreement during a meeting in San Francisco at 1 Post Street.

The first Sauvignon Blanc vines went in during 1998. The winery released its first Cabernet Franc (1997) in 1999, its first Cabernet Sauvignon (1997) in 2000 and its first Sauvignon Blanc (2001) in 2002. In 2017, to commemorate the partnership they had begun 20 years earlier, Crocker & Starr released the inaugural vintage of 1 Post Cabernet Sauvignon, made from the estate’s heirloom selections of Cabernet Sauvignonoldest and priced at $200 per bottle.


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