Practical Winery
58-D Paul Drive, San Rafael, CA 94903-2054
phone:415/479-5819 · fax:415/492-9325

September/October 2000

Lemelson Winery: Building a Gravity-Flow Pinot Noir Facility

Laurence Ferar

Eric Lemelson and I first met at his stunning 31-acre estate vineyard overlooking the coast range near the town of Carlton, OR. He planned to build a gravity-flow winery, and our firm would provide architectural services.

Lemelson immediately made his priorities clear: the focus was to be on making top-quality Pinot Noir. He was not interested in building a showplace, and he understood that true gravity-flow facilities come at a premium.

Lemelson had selected the brow of the hill at the top of the vineyard as the winery site. However, in addition to taking up prime vineyard, any structure in that location, even one cut into the hill, would have been extremely prominent. Based on what Lemelson had said, he was not looking for something so conspicuous.

This site did have its advantages: Its views were striking, and there was plenty of slope for a multi-level facility. However, developing truck access would be challenging and would take up even more valuable vineyard land. Across the road from the vineyard, a pasture adjacent to a forested slope belonged to Lemelson and offered what seemed an ideal site.

Because he had already done considerable clearing to plant the vineyard, Lemelson was hesitant to cut additional trees. But if the winery was nestled into an existing notch at the edge of the woodland just at the transition from slope to pasture, we would have the best of both worlds. It offered adequate incline for multiple levels and enough flat ground for maneuvering large glass delivery trucks.

Lemelson was not convinced but allowed us to proceed with schematic plans on both sites for comparison.

Site selection
The vineyard site proved an even greater challenge than anticipated, requiring considerable excavation and retaining walls to support the delivery access.

By contrast, the winery and access road plan seemed to fit the pasture site like a glove. Orienting the 21,000 square foot facility parallel to the slope would allow us to terrace into the hill, taking advantage of the existing incline and maximizing usable area on each level. Expansion could be accommodated simply by adding on to the winery at one end. The only drawback was that the vertical drop was limited. We were unable to develop a scheme that accomodated all the desired levels.

An ideal gravity flow facility would have as many as seven levels: 1) grape receiving, sorting and loading, fermentors and presses, 2) fermentor unloading and pomace removal, 3) settling, 4) barrel storage, 5) blending, 6) bottling, and 7) the dock for truck loading.

But in reality purchasing separate tanks for settling, blending, and bottling would be an extravagance and so would building enough levels to accommodate them. Clearly compromises were necessary. Gentle handling is critical in the early winemaking steps when skins, pips, and stems are still in contact with the juice. But it wasn’t as clear where, during the latter stages of processing, extra expense would pay off in quality.

We needed help to determine where the use of gravity would be most cost-effective and also to translate anticipated production into the number of fermentors of each size that would be needed.

New to winegrowing but determined to come up to speed quickly, Lemelson sought advice from several Oregon winemakers. Not surprisingly, some of their advice was contradictory. I encouraged him to retain one experienced winemaker who would be available on-call as a consultant, and Eric Hamacher (Hamacher Wines, Carlton, OR) soon joined the design team in that capacity.

Grape delivery dilemma: Movable or stationary fermentors
We visited several Oregon and California wineries to research the key question of how grapes are best sorted, destemmed, and loaded into fermentors. We observed two basic methods: an array of movable equipment, servicing rows of fixed fermentors (in use at Opus One [Oakville, CA], Adelsheim [Newberg,OR], Domaine Drouhin [Dundee, OR], Willakenzie [Yamhill, OR]), and movable fermentors filled on a fixed crush pad (as at Robert Mondavi’s Carneros facility [Napa, CA], Byron [Santa Maria, CA], Medici [Newberg, OR], and Beaux Freres [Newberg, OR]).

The first method typically involves a hopper or bin dumper, a sorting table, and a destemmer, which all must be moved and properly aligned at each fermentor. Power drops have to be coordinated to be within close range of each piece of equipment.

Many wineries utilize a mezzanine level just above the top of the fermentors. These require removable guard rail sections and splash guards for open-top fermentors. Facilities with single-level fermentation rooms often employ an inclined conveyor in addition to (or in conjunction with) a sorting table, adding to the challenge of creating an efficient set-up.

The fixed crush pad has the advantage of not requiring alignment of various equipment each time a fermentor is filled. But moving large fermentors requires special self-propelled pallet jacks and flat floors which obviate good drainage. As a result, clean up becomes more tedious.

From gantry crane to Lunar Lander
Lemelson and Hamacher worked on the capacity/timing puzzle dictated by the need to process separate vineyard lots. From this, we would learn the necessary fermentor mix and the resultant barrel capacity, which would dictate square-footage requirements.

My design team focused on design of the grape-delivery system. We initially investigated an equipment array mounted on a track that would keep everything aligned. It seemed to make the most sense to install this at the top of the fermentors. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the site topography to devote a level to this purpose and still have the other floor levels that were important.

We knew that there must be a way to accomplish fermentor loading by gravity (using a forklift) without building an extra level for that purpose alone.

Dean Fisher had designed and built a sorting platform with the crush pad at Medici Vineyards, Newberg, OR, with input from Hamacher. It incorporates a sorting table with an integral bin dumper at one end and a destemmer at the other, all elevated to allow a forklift to shuffle small bins underneath for unloading.

I had also admired the simplicity of the fermentation room at Domaine Leroy in Burgundy, France, with its crane-rail-mounted punch-down device. Why not combine the two and put the sorting/destemming equipment array on a gantry-type crane, supported on the outside walls of the fermentation room? It would be quite similar to gantry-type cranes used in steel fabrication facilities.

One challenge was how to overcome the potential danger to someone on the catwalk if the moving rail spanned from wall to wall. At Domaine Leroy, the tanks were accessed from ladders, rather than a catwalk. In any case, punch-down and fermentor loading would certainly need to happen simultaneously, requiring two separate systems.

Using a punch-down rail centered over the tanks meant that the crane rails could not overlap the center of the fermentors. We could support them on a series of columns located between tanks, but adding that many columns would create a sanitation nightmare. Then, in one brainstorming session, we conceived combining all of the sorting/destemming equipment onto a 12-foot tall self-propelled vehicle — a self-contained, mobile, sorting platform.

The idea was intriguing but many problems needed to be worked out. How would it be steered? How could it access fermentors on both sides of the room? How would people get on and off? How would it be powered? How and where would it be cleaned? Finally, who could build it?

We considered equipping the vehicle with a steering gear or using a cable guide, but chose to put the vehicle on flanged railroad-type wheels that run in a track formed by the edge of the trench drain.
We had difficulty resolving the question of how to feed fermenters on opposite sides of the aisle. One option was to take the entire platform outside and simply turn it around. But taking the unit out for a “walk” between lots didn’t seem practical.

The idea of using a sorting conveyor that could run in either direction was also considered but this would have required a second destemmer. Finally we realized that we could mount the entire mechanism on a turntable, which would allow it to swing into position over fermentors on both sides of the room.

At first, getting on and off the platform seemed a simple issue; we thought we would install a ladder at each end of the room. Then we realized we’d have a problem in a power outage. We considered attaching ladders to the legs, but we wanted to leave maximum clearance for forklift access. The solution is a retractable ladder that can extend down to the catwalks.

We involved the electrical sub-contractor in discussions of how to power the equipment. Again the problems seemed myriad: dragging a long, thick extension cord wasn’t practical. Plugging and unplugging the machine every few fermentors didn’t seem a safe option, either, given the wet environment.

The electrician suggested using a trolley system to suspend loops of cord overhead. At the fabricator’s suggestion, this was changed to a conductor bar. It resembles the third rail of a subway train, but in this case, is mounted on the ceiling trusses. However, the conductor bar wouldn’t work in exterior applications, so if we wanted to move the unit outside for cleaning we were back to needing an extension cord.

Cleaning was the next challenge. We assumed that the machine would have to be taken outside to wash it. However, the only area available to bring the machine outside was directly adjacent to the main building entry. Issuing raincoats to visitors was not an attractive option.

I had visited the new Kirkland Winery (Napa, CA) and saw Steve Cornish’s stainless steel fabrications there. I was impressed with his workmanship and especially interested in the clean-in-place system he used for fruit conveyors. We contacted him, and he agreed to take on the project.

Working from our schematic drawings, Cornish transformed our utilitarian platform concept into what one Oregon wine writer called “a man-size transformer-toy worthy of Rube Goldberg himself.” Our office dubbed it the “Lunar Landing Module,” but it proved itself — functioning beautifully throughout the 1999 harvest of 70 tons of grapes.

“Due to the continuous, even feeding of the grapes through the destemmer, the percentage of whole berries and the lack of stem pieces was unbelievable,” recalls Hamacher. “I have never seen anything that even came close. The fruit was so clean in the fermentor after destemming, it looked like hand-picked blueberries.”

Use of the clean-in-place system on both the sorting table and within the Delta E-2 destemmer eliminated the need to take the platform outside for cleaning. The entire destemmer could be lowered by means of a cable winch for changing the basket and servicing. The system requires a dedicated 300-gallon tank and a pressure pump, and cleaning occurs between the grape receiving entry and the smaller fermentors.
The platform’s catwalk grating still requires considerable effort to clean. Once it’s washed down, workers must dodge drips from the platform above as they clean up the residue left on the floor. Retrofitting a solid platform floor with a downspout system would avoid this annoyance.

While not inexpensive, this sorting platform effectively eliminated the need for construction of a mezzanine level, which would have cost more, leaving money in the budget for other wine-quality priorities.

Building Layout
Fermentation room
In the fermentation room, fermentors line both sides of a center aisle. There is a range of fermentor sizes from three to eight tons to accommodate various vineyard lots. Fermentors are equipped with jackets for cooling or heating.

A large door, which accommodates delivery to the sorting platform and tanks, services the press end of the room for efficient processing of white grapes. The sorting platform can also be used to load white grapes as whole clusters into the press. A second door to the east allows for “flow through” traffic. Grapes arrive from the vineyard on pallets of 40-lb lug boxes. These can be stockpiled, out of the rain, under the large canopy.

The pallets are forklifted to the sorting platform (see photo). A shaker table meters the fruit onto the variable-speed sorting conveyor. The belt is solid, rather than mesh, with a pan to catch runoff. Two people at the loading end alternate: one dumps lugs until the pallet is empty, while the other sorts, then they switch jobs. As many as three additional people per side can sort the fruit before clusters spill into the destemmer and finally into fermentors. The tops of all but the smallest fermentors are level, so the destemmer just clears the rims, minimizing fruit maceration.

Tank level
Settling and blending occur on the next level down. After fermentation, red wine is drained by gravity into settling tanks on this level through fixed stainless steel wine lines. The winemaker can simply connect to the permanent lines, open a valve before leaving at night, and come back to wine settling the next morning. The lab is also located on this level, midway between the barrel and fermentation rooms.

Circulation spine
Separating the fermentation room and the settling/blending tank level is a three-story circulation “spine” which introduces natural light from several large skylights into the lower cellars. With a two-story stair, interior windows, and catwalk bridges, this eight-foot wide hall connects both visually and physically all the major spaces in the building. Transfer lines are concealed in three buttresses that cross through the space. Two openings are provided from the catwalk level of the fermentation room into the settling/blending tank level to facilitate communication between the workspaces. Because these openings connect more that two floors vertically, building code required the addition of doors that close automatically in case of fire.

Barrel rooms
Four vaulted barrel rooms are below the fermentation room to accommodate Pinot Noir production. Each room is 36-feet square and 16-feet high. Twelve-foot high ConSpan pre-cast concrete vaults (pages 54–63 PWV—May/June 1998) set on five-foot high, cast-in-place stem walls form the cave-like spaces. This combination gives the rooms a height proportional to their width and permits the future use of steel barrel racks. The fourth cellar temporarily serves as case goods storage.

The ConSpan pre-cast vaults were designed originally for bridges. They are very strong, conveniently pre-fabricated off-site, compare favorably costwise with cast-in-place concrete structures, and are aesthetically pleasing.

Another 20-foot by 56-foot cellar for Chardonnay is located below the settling/blending level. The size of the fermentation and settling/blending rooms is a function of the number of fermentors and tanks required, balanced with the necessary barrel capacity of the cellars directly below them and the limits of the Conspan units. Because of trucking weight limitations, the 36-foot ConSpan units are available only in six-foot wide units.

Cellar floors are gravel, open to the soil below, with concrete walkways equipped with an in-floor heating and cooling system consisting of rows of polyethylene tubing embedded in the concrete walkways at approximately six inches on center. Heated or chilled glycol is pumped through this network, gradually radiating the heat or cooling to the cellar. This is similar to the system used at Adelsheim Vineyards (Newberg, OR).

Each barrel room can be heated or cooled independently. Stainless steel wine lines connect each barrel room to the settling/blending level. Additionally, capped six-inch PVC sleeves are provided for hose drops directly from the fermentation room above.

Each barrel room is equipped with a fresh air “snorkel” (18 inches in diameter rising seven feet from the barrel room ceiling to vents above grade) to provide ventilation by natural chimney effect. Should passive air movement prove inadequate to counter mold growth, provisions have been made for addition of variable speed fans within the fresh air ducts.

Each barrel room is also equipped with a pair of recessed barrel-washing wells. Ozonated water can be used for barrel washing. Because of corrosion potential, stainless steel piping was required to accommodate the ozone-treated water.

Bottling / Glass staging / Case goods
The bottling area is arranged in a “U” for efficient material handling. Glass staging is along one leg with the bottling line along the opposite side. Pallets for bottles are brought across the aisle to the bottling line, loaded and transferred directly into case goods storage. The loading dock access is directly opposite case goods storage.

The loading dock is built into a porch extension, which allows access in and out of the building, even while a truck is parked at the dock. There is ramped forklift access off one side and a true dock off the other side. Allowing truck traffic to circulate around the entire building precluded the need for a large truck turn around. A driver simply approaches alongside the building and backs up to the dock.

Structural considerations
Construction of “gravity flow” wineries typically starts with massive excavation followed by construction of a very tall retaining wall. Lateral (earthquake) loads increase dramatically with depth. As the retaining wall gets taller, the concrete required to hold back the lateral forces increases exponentially, especially if the slope rises on the back side. This is the primary reason that “gravity flow” winery facilities are more expensive.

In an effort to minimize the massive amount of concrete required, the pre-cast vaults at Lemelson Winery have been used as buttresses, stacked in the direction that provides the most stability to supplement the 21-foot high retaining wall. Just as a brace is more effective if it’s attached higher on the wall it’s supporting, the shoring effect was increased by placing the pre-cast vaults on top of stem walls.

Providing for safety issues
To prevent CO2 poisoning, a combination of active and passive systems has been utilized. If CO2 is detected where it shouldn’t ordinarily be, an alarm will sound and an exhaust fan immediately comes on to purge the area. In unoccupied spaces, CO2 buildup might conceivably be desirable, to kill fruit flies, for example. Where CO2 might normally be expected, such as in the fermentation room or the Chardonnay barrel room, warning lights are provided at all entry points connected to manual exhaust switches. This allows the room to be purged manually before people enter.

Plans call for a second phase of winery construction to include a dining room served by a small commercial kitchen. For larger events, the space is expandable through French doors to the entry court and two interconnecting terraces. The lower terrace overlooks the estate vineyard and is conceived as an outdoor room complete with a fireplace and overhead trellis.

Connecting the office and hospitality area to the rest of the winery is a stair that wraps around a central light well topped by a large skylight. Overlooking this interior “tower” are windows from the entry lobby and offices, and a balcony just outside the lab. The stair-tower culminates in a small tasting area which opens directly into the Chardonnay barrel cellar.

Build it, and they will come
A recurring topic of discussion in planning the winery was how much to build in for expansion. Fortunately, this project coincided with reform (aided by Hamacher) of Oregon laws governing winery licenses, allowing multiple winery licenses within a single facility. Lemelson was able to build in enough extra capacity to accommodate two additional winemakers until he expands his own production.
Lemelson Winery is the achievement of a successful collaboration between an owner determined to keep the focus on quality, a knowledgeable winemaker interested in exploring new approaches, and an experienced architectural team. We all worked together to “raise the bar” for production of quality Pinot Noir.

Laurence Ferar is the principal architect and landscape architect with Laurence Ferar and Associates, Inc., a Portland, OR firm established in 1983 specializing in winery design. Tel: 503/241-5447.