Grapes are piped overhead from the crush pad on the right into the winery for processing. Notice the abundance of windows and full-length glass doors that take advantage of natural lighting.
Photos by by Melissa Hansen
The “wow” factor is often used to describe sleek, luxury cars and new electronic gadgetry—not industrial, bulk wineries. But Zirkle Wine Company’s new facility in Prosser, Washington, is all wow, from its massive, stainless steel tanks to state-of-the-art equipment to precision-designed flow.
Even the time it took to build the football-sized winery is amazing. Construction began last year in February and was completed in time for the 2012 harvest and crush last fall. Two 50-ton grape presses came from Italy and fit perfectly when installed on the concrete pad—within millimeters, said David Forsyth, winemaker at Zirkle Wine. “The fact that it was built well, and in such a short time frame, says a lot about winery operations manager David Copeland and his attention to detail,” Forsyth said.
A powerhouse team with years of Washington wine experience has been assembled to run the winery. Forsyth is a veteran of the state’s wine industry, beginning at Hogue Cellars in 1984, and eventually becoming general manager there. Forsyth left Hogue in 2005 to be winemaker at Mercer Estates and joined the new Zirkle Wine staff last June. Copeland, operations manager, worked with Forsyth at both Hogue and Mercer Estates. French-trained winemaker Frederique Spencer, who was previously with Yakima Valley’s Sagelands Winery, works with Forsyth in making wine. The Zirkle Wine team is rounded out with a full-time enologist to run the wine laboratory and two full-time cellar masters. Seasonal workers are hired to help with crush.
The winery was designed to be efficient in all areas, from the handful of staffers needed to make a million gallons of wine to the elevated grape receiving station and flow of product. The receiving station is about 20 feet higher than the winery floor. Gravity is used as much as possible, reducing the amount of energy needed for pumping and also being gentler on the grapes.
Other examples of efficiency include using conveyor belts instead of augers to move red grapes, which reduces the amount of solids moved to the fermenting tanks, thereby reducing bitterness in the wine. Overhead lines transfer wine to the tanks, keeping the floor free of unnecessary pipes and hoses.
A heat exchanger was installed on the red juice line, Forsyth said, allowing red grapes to be heated up by 30 degrees if needed as they move from the outside crush pad inside to the fermenting tanks—all in one pass. “Being able to do that in one pass, and not having to go through another set of pipes, is huge,” he said.
Natural lighting from ceiling lights, windows, and rollup window doors create a bright and well-lit environment while reducing energy costs. Additionally, the interior lights have motion sensors to allow lighting only the area where workers are present.
Forsyth said he likes the collaboration with the management team that comes with working at a large winery, compared to being winemaker at a small facility and doing it all by oneself. He also likes access to state-of-the art technology and equipment.
“Smaller wineries don’t have the luxury of all the equipment we have here because of the cost and economies of scale,” he said, pointing to a centrifuge they use to remove solids and clarify wine in a manner gentler than crossflow filtration. Crossflow filtration technology eliminates the disposal problems associated with using diatomaceous earth filtration, but Forsyth believes the technology is harsher on the wine than the centrifuge.
Zirkle Wine uses a 400-gallon yeast rehydrator, technology that he hasn’t seen used before in the state. Wineries need to rehydrate the freeze-dried yeast before adding it to juice to start fermentation, he said. “We want our yeast happy, rehydrated at the right temperature and with the right amount of nutrients so the yeast will be more viable and result in stronger fermentations.”
The rehydrator technology automatically controls temperature and rehydrates yeast in a couple of hours. “When you do it manually, it takes a long time, and it’s usually not done right, because the person doing it was pulled off the job to do something else.”
When the Good Fruit Grower visited Zirkle Wine in mid-November, harvest had ended and workers were cleaning crush pad equipment. Gewürztraminer wine, ready for final blending, had already been processed and shipped out, and other wines were in the process of fermentation, storage, or shipment.
The length of time needed for winemaking varies by variety and customer. Turnaround time can be as short as two days for customers just wanting the grapes to be pressed into juice and chilled or several months if they want a more finished product, Forsyth said. Red wine will be in the tanks for five to six months before it’s ready for shipment.
He said their first crush went well, and they were busier than expected. “The vintage was the biggest ever, and because of the nice, long fall, winemakers pushed harvest out as far as they could. Tank space in the state was pressed to handle so many grapes all at once,” he said, adding that they were able to accommodate a number of wineries in addition to Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, their primary customer.