Robin Hood Winemaking

by James Laube

Joel Gott reasoned that if he bought it and rebuilt it, they would come-and they have. Napa Valley’s newest haven for artisan winemakers is a sprawling 16-acre site on Zinfandel Lane in Rutherford, close to the valley’s famous vineyards.

But it’s hardly the valley’s newest Taj Mahal. Architecturally, it is still very much the Sutter Home wine factory it once was, a sparse, functional mix of boxy, warehouse-shaped, concrete buildings along with a similarly huge stainless steel “tank farm” with the capacity to store millions of gallons of wine.
Locals still refer to it as the chicken ranch, or just the ranch, a reference to the property’s earlier incarnation as a facility for raising poultry. For the past 25 years, though, it served as Sutter Home’s multimillion-case winery-the house that White Zin built.

As Sutter Home relocated its winemaking to operations closer to its grape sources, outside Napa in the Central Valley, the ranch was put up for sale. Gott envisioned the property as a custom-crush ffacility, where dozens of winemakers could pool resources, share crushers, fermentors, filters and bottling lines, and still have their own little winery “studios” for barrel-aging. In 2007 he put together a group of investors, including Sutter Home (which is leasing back some of the tanks and storage), to finance the deal, expected to reach $60 million.

There’s no shortage of big money pouring into Napa Valley. Plans for dozens of upscale designer wineries are on the drawing boards, as Napa remains a field of dreams for many pursuing the almighty grape. Owning a winery has become one of those elite status symbols that precious few can afford.

But there’s not a lot of winemaking room for the little guys, and this is where Gott applied his Robin Hood philosophy: borrow from the rich guys–who will rent the storage capacity and tank farms-and help those who don’t have the capital to invest in a physical plant but have the passion and energy for winemaking.

Gott is no stranger to entrepreneurial endeavors, and he recognizes the importance of what small, cutting-edge vintners bring to the wine business. “Little guys are the ones who have the creative juice that gives the valley its biggest buzz,” says Gott, 37. He is a value-oriented vintner whose wine interests include his own Joel Gott label, the Three Thieves brand, which produces 50,000 cases at $12 to $20 per bottle, and Cuvee Caroline, the label of his wife, Sarah Gott. His family also owns the iconic Taylor’s Refresher, which has two Napa Valley locations and one at the Ferry Building in San Francisco.

The Ranch will accommodate some 55 clients, mostly small would-be cult-wine producers in the 2,000- to 10,000-case range, who can’t afford or don’t want to sink cash into a facility. But it can also be of use to industry titans, with 7 million gallons of storage capacity, which means a Beringer- or Mondavi-size winery might lease space to make, barrel or store wine they might not have room for at their current facilities. It has the capacity for more than 5 million cases.

Many of Napa’s highest-profile wineries, such as Bryant Family and Colgin, starred at custom-crush facilities, such as Napa Wine Co. and Laird, and warehouse wineries are important in most winem3king communities. These are one-stop operations where clients share the costs of what would otherwise be expensive equipment. Acquiring land is out of the question for most. So a consultant such as Philippe Melka, Mark Aubert or Rosemary Cakebread could help set up prospective clients with their own Little winery-in-a-winery. Imagine it as smaller winery suites in a bigger complex.

Some vintners will use it as a starting point before they build their own wineries, Gott says. Others like the size and practicality of focusing on grapes, stylistic experiments and sales and marketing, rather than building a winery. If you rent from the Ranch, all of the essentials–from paperwork to labs–are easily accessible.

“It’s the young winemakers that give the valley its creativity,” says Got, whose clients include those making just a few barrels to a few thousand cases and may have designs on building their own wineries some day. Right now the little guys need room for their little lots of wine and this is one way to make it happen.