Growing Pains

Pity the Napa Valley grape grower. In an especially good year, his vines may work magic, ripening far more grapes to perfection than usual. More product, more money, right? Maybe, maybe not. If his contracts with the wine producers call for only so much, then his abundance is subject to supply and demand, and odds are his neighbors are experiencing similar abundance. Supply is high. If he doesn't have a name vineyard -- the sort that gets a mention on the front of the label -- his abundance may avail him little. Somebody will almost certainly buy it, but the grower may be forced to accept prices well below normal. Frustrating.

Frustration is what started Judd's Hill Winery on its custom micro-crush winemaking plan in 1992. "We've been in the Valley for almost 30 years," says second-generation winemaker Judd Finkelstein, "and we know a lot of growers. One guy in particular didn't think he was getting enough money for his grapes." But how to prove it? Like many growers, his fruit went into the crusher along with fruit from other sources, so that no wine was produced exclusively from his grapes. "We said, 'Why don't you bring us a half ton, and we'll make it into wine for you?' He was really happy with the results." The custom wine the grower got from Judd's Hill "was a good showcase. He could take it to wineries and hopefully add value to his vineyard." Maybe even get someone to take it on for vineyard-designated production.

Word spread, and more and more growers began to come to the Finkelsteins with their excess fruit. The Finkelsteins had the reputation -- Judd's father Art had been co-founder of Whitehall Lane back in the '70s. And they had the physical facility -- no minor detail in building-shy Napa. And most importantly, they were willing to work with relatively tiny quantities -- say, a grower's unexpected excess half ton, good for a single barrel of wine. By comparison, custom-crush facility Napa Valley Wine Company requires an eight-ton minimum. "We have a good relationship with them," says Judd. "They send us some of their small-scale clients, and if someone calls me and says, 'I've got ten tons of Cabernet here,' I'll tell them to go to Napa Valley Wine Company."

A number of growers were so happy with their wine that they started bringing more and more of their production to Judd's Hill. Several have since launched their own commercial labels. "We kind of launched them," explains Judd. "If they realize they're becoming successful, we kind of nudge them to start doing their own thing. We're not really in the business of making commercial wine for people. We don't like getting above five barrels' worth. It's the small lots we can really put ourselves into. I like to get my nose in every barrel."

"When you get above five barrels," adds Judd's wife Holly, "you can't do the small, open-bin fermentation, the hand punch-downs you can do with smaller lots. We try not to use too much machine intervention." And even with the five-barrel limit, things are beginning to get hectic. Last year's huge harvest brought around 100 clients to the micro-crush operation. "We started swimming in wine, and it taxed our ability to give everything personal attention," says Judd. So much so that this year the Finkelsteins hired another enologist, one with a mastery of Excel and a penchant for organization.

Not all of those 100 clients were growers, however. Somewhere along the line, the civilians got in on the game. "People really love being in Napa," says Holly. "They'll come to the winery, and they'll realize, 'Wow, I can have a barrel of wine with my own name on it, with my name on the label.'"

"And it's not just their name," says Judd. "They get to really consult. They can say, 'I really like Cabernet from the Stag's Leap District; what can you get me?' We know pretty much all the growers, and we're usually able to source whatever it is they want."

Sometimes, what they want isn't what the Finkelsteins would suggest. "Ripeness is a pretty big thing in Napa -- higher-alcohol wines," says Holly. That kind of super-ripeness isn't the Judd's Hill style, and they'll say as much to the client. "But some people just love that higher alcohol, and it's whatever the client wants."

"We have clients who want wine that goes against all of our intuitions, and yet we do it," adds Judd. "They can tell us what kind of barrel they want -- French or American oak, light or heavy toast, new vs. one or two years old. Some people want 100 percent new American oak for two years. That's basically going to give you a wine that tastes like a pickle barrel" -- American oak is famous for its dill character. "Every year, we call them after we taste it and say, 'Are you sure you want to keep it in there the whole time?' And they always say, 'Yeah! We love it like that!'"

Some transactions are handled entirely long-distance -- a guy in New York who wants personalized wine for corporate gifts. Others are much more personal. An aficionado from North Carolina asked to help with the picking of his fruit. "You don't really know when the grapes are going to be picked until about a day or two before," recounts Judd, "but I called him, and he got on a plane and was there in the vineyard before the sun came up with his picking knife. He picked the grapes, came back to the winery, picked and sorted the fruit as it was being crushed...he got into it."

Not many are quite so devoted, but lots of folks like the fact that they can bring friends into Judd's Hill and let them do barrel-tasting out of their personal barrel. "People can really consider it their winery in Napa, which is really nice," says Holly.

It's nice for Judd's Hill as well. Their micro-crush operation is more than double what they make under their own label, and that is very much the way they like it. "We couldn't really support the family on 3000 cases of Judd's Hill," says Judd. "The custom winemaking allows us to keep our Judd's Hill wines at the same small production level, using the same vineyards we've been using. And we can grow the custom-crush business as our family grows."

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