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September 20-26, 2006

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Judd and Art Finklestein

Made to order: Judd (left) and Art Finkelstein help to crush great ideas.

Personal Best

Custom wine programs allow regular wine lovers to join the crush

By Alastair Bland


Crush time is here, and the grapes hang heavy in the Indian summer sun. Such a sight makes wannabe vintners of many dreamers. How nice it would be, they sigh, to have a winery of one's own, tucked somewhere far back in the quiet oak-studded hills of Napa or Sonoma.

But such idyllic dreams can quickly turn to vinegar when reality and logistics collide. One must, of course, harvest the fruit, crush the grapes, fill the vats, clear the hoses of muck, understand nuances in temperature and generally have a grasp of chemistry, the science of taste and old-fashioned farm methods.

Perhaps grapes are best left to the growers and wine to the makers, but the lazy layperson can still craft his or her very own vintage, as several wineries in the North Bay produce custom wines.

In this process, clients choose varying degrees of physical involvement, from little more than a few telephone calls to actually joining in the fall harvest, the crush and all the dirty, sticky work that follows. Most significantly, however, the client may precisely direct the winemakers in what grapes will be used and by what proportions the different blends will be mixed before bottling.

Judd's Hill MicroCrush, located just north of Napa, has produced custom wines since 1992. It's a two-generation family business with Judd, owner Art Finkelstein's son, acting as winemaker. In addition to their own 3,000 annual case winery, Judd's Hill, the family has added the last element of the name, "MicroCrush," indicating their specialization in very small and personal batches of wine made exactly to the specifications of others.

"Other wineries custom crush," says Art Finkelstein, "but many have a minimum requirement of several tons. We don't like to do more than eight tons. We save that for the big guys and they send the small guys to us. It's a very nice arrangement."

Judd's Hill will process as little as a half ton of grapes, which is one barrel's worth, or 24 cases of wine totaling 288 bottles. By a winemaker's standards, a half ton of grapes is a paltry bundle. Yet even for the dinkiest batches, the Finkelsteins don't let their guard down.

"When you make it with us, you're guaranteed success. We don't mess up. We've got three winemakers here with 40 years of experience," Finkelstein assures.

Judd's Hill MicroCrush grows 12 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon on the hillside that ascends eastward from St. Helena, and the winery maintains a priority in producing its own various wines each year. Its mainstay, however, is custom wines, of which the family annually generates 7,000 to 9,000 cases--enough to prompt the opening of a new winery last year. The grapes for these custom vintages vary in origin. Some clients have their own vineyards, just no winery, so they truck their fruit over to Judd's Hill and leave the winemaking to the experts. Others--city slickers, perhaps--have no grapes at all, and for these Judd's Hill MicroCrush provides the grapes, as the winery works with many local growers and has access to several varietals of Napa's finest clusters.

"We've also got an inventory of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc stored in barrels, and we can complement someone's blend with these wines if they like," Finkelstein says.

Finkelstein stresses that he does not rent his facility out to grape-holders who want to make their own wine, but clients are welcome to participate in the process. Enthusiastic individuals sometimes help with the picking, the crushing, stirring the vats and cleaning the equipment.

"But mainly people just come in and taste their wine's progress, see that it's a living thing that mellows out over time."

Certainly, many wines are cheaper than a custom blend from Judd's Hill MicroCrush. However, here you're paying not only for grapes and labor, but also for a very personal attention to exactly what you want in several hundred bottles of wine. The price, says Finkelstein--after crushing, fermenting, bottling and labeling--arrives at about $275 per case.

Judd's Hill MicroCrush works seasonally, and now is the time. If you want to get purple and sticky, go for it--and forget about that vineyard. It's a lot of trouble, and it's probably just a pipe dream anyway.

Judd's Hill MicroCrush, 2332 Silverado Trail, Napa. For details, call 866.438.5833 or go to www.nvcmc.com.

Chateau Felice Winery in Healdsburg also offers custom wines. It's a different sort of business, though. First, the winery grows all the grapes and provides its clients with the unblended wines, says winemaker Genevieve Llerena. There are no strange pickup trucks from the Sacramento delta pulling up out front with two tons of alien grapes--not here at the prim and pretty Chateau Felice. Second, one must be a member of the wine club to partake, but it's not a big commitment to join.

Clients may assist in the harvest and the crush if they like, but Llerena says that the primary service at Chateau Felice is simply the tutored tasting of the estate reds--Cab, Merlot and Zinfandel--and the subsequent blending to each client's fancies and desires.

"We're always right there assisting. I really want to show them that blending is one of the main parts of winemaking and that it has a strong effect on the finish. The wines are the same ones we use for our own label, so I already know how they mix. I'll suggest a good starting point, then ask if they want fruity or spicy wine, and we fine-tune it from there. So far, no one has ever ordered exactly the same wine as another person."

The blended wines age in barrels down in the estate cellar, and when clients grow so thirsty they can no longer bear it, they call in to have the wine bottled and make arrangements for pickup or delivery.

"For the winemaking, it's $100 to sit down and blend with us and it comes out in the end to about $180 per case when the wine's ready to take home," says Llerena. The cost usually ends up at about $14 per bottle.

Chateau Felice Winery, 10603 Chalk Hill Road, Healdsburg; tasting room, 223 Center St., Healdsburg (down the street from Barn Diva). 707.431.9010. www.chateaufelice.com.

Napa Valley Wine Co.

Cult cab central: The Napa Valley Wine Co. helps serious wannabe vintners acheive their enological dreams.

The Napa Wine Company on Highway 29 in Oakville crushes grapes and ferments the wine for commercial clients. Such labels as Bryant Family Vineyards, Colgin, Staglin and Pahlmeyer have come out of the vats here, and emerging winemakers are welcomed. The Napa Wine Company provides all the facilities--and even some of the grapes--for producing large quantities of wine, but clients must have their own winemaker and show potential and interest in building a long-term relationship with the company.

Napa Wine Company, 40 Hwy. 29, Oakville. 800.848.9630. www.napawineco.com.

Rutherford Hill Winery on the east side of the Silverado Trail offers tours and blending sessions by appointment. The winery serves groups of two to as many as several dozen people. They receive a walk-through of the fermentation facilities and the vineyard, a tasting of several Merlots and a blending lesson that sees each guest off with a half bottle of their own personally labeled blend.

Rutherford Hill Winery, 200 Rutherford Hill Road (off the Silverado Trail and near the Auberge du Soleil), Rutherford. 707.963.1871. www.rutherfordhill.com.


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