Discover The Cellar | A Balance of Art & Science

The cellar is the beating heart of every winery. It is here where Mother Nature’s labor ceases, and human skill steps in. The cellar matters because it is the sanctuary in which wine is allowed to mature and develop under the watchful eyes and hands of the winemaking team. It’s also the first time the team can control the process. That’s why when founder Don Dady first set foot on the land that would become Seven Apart, he knew that a world-class cellar would be one of the key factors distinguishing our winery. “Don wanted to ensure our winemaking facility features the most advanced technology and the finest equipment available, providing us greater control over the incoming fruit,” opens Yannick Girardo, Managing Partner at Seven Apart. For the past five years, Yannick has overseen Don’s vision come to life and shares why creating a cellar where tradition meets innovation is so important for success. 

A Cellar Walkthrough

Allow us to set the scene for those who have never been to the Seven Apart cellar. The space is organized into three sections: the front, middle, and back. This layout represents the three stages of winemaking: grape arrival, fermentation, and aging.

The front section is the most active during harvest, as this is where the grapes are received and processed. Upon entering the production facility, you will see a large covered canopy housing the crush pad. The crush pad serves as the initial point of grape arrival, marking the beginning of their transformative journey. An optical sorter is then used to process the grapes – a sophisticated device that meticulously selects the finest grapes through advanced imaging techniques. A pneumatic press is also at our disposal, although it is primarily used for white wine production. A pneumatic press applies gentle, controlled pressure to extract the juice from grapes, preserving their delicate flavors and aromas.

Approaching the cellar’s midsection, the fermentation tanks come into view. “The cellar was an existing structure when Don acquired the property, so the team had a set square footage to work with,” Yannick explains. “To optimize the layout and functionality of the available space, we chose square-shaped fermentation tanks. This allows us to make better use of the area compared to cylindrical or cone-shaped tanks.”

Finally, as you come toward the back of the cellar, you will see the temperature and humidity-controlled environment for barrel aging. Yannick emphasizes the importance of maintaining a 55 to 60-degree Fahrenheit range and 75% humidity at all times. Since the cellar is not underground, they recreate the desired environment using air conditioning units and humidifiers. This setup prevents any shrinkage or issues with the barrel wood drying out. Like a well-orchestrated symphony, the cellar flows seamlessly from point A to B to point C, accompanying the wine through each stage of its life.

Controlling The Cellar

Amidst unpredictable climate conditions such as fires, hail storms, and floods, the cellar is a haven where the team can exert more control. Temperature is the most crucial of these elements. As Yannick explains:

“The temperature-controlled environment for the tanks is critical for fermentation. Whether you’re doing a cold soak, raising the temperature during fermentation, or monitoring CO2 levels, it’s crucial to manage these factors meticulously.” 

With the help of technology, Seven Apart maintains a consistent temperature and humidity in the cellar, ensuring ideal conditions for the wine. The cutting-edge technology, complete with sensors and alarms, also ensures the safety of the staff working in the area, especially during the fermentation process when high levels of CO2 are extracted. Ventilation fans kick in automatically, maintaining a constant flow of fresh air and keeping the cellar environment optimal for winemaking.

To avoid issues like contamination and spoilage, control is kept through cleanliness. Everything in the cellar has to be extremely sanitized and clean to avoid any cross-contamination or any issue of spoilage.  

“The truth is that the fun part in winemaking is when the grapes come in. But the reality is that you spend 95% of the time preparing for the grapes and only 5% of your time making wine!” laughs Yannick. 

As harvest time approaches, cleaning, and sanitation reach their peak. “With each new arrival of grapes, we must sanitize again, scrub everything, and ensure that all surfaces are clean and as free from contamination as possible so that we can process the incoming batch of fruit,” he explains.

Balancing Art & Science 

In the realm of winemaking, some purists advocate for minimal technology within the cellar, favoring the raw hand of nature and tradition. However, at Seven Apart, we believe in a different philosophy, one that harmoniously marries the old with the new.

“In winemaking, technology is merely a tool. It’s the winemaker who breathes life into the process, wielding it with the touch of an artist and the mind of a scientist. This delicate balance between art and science is where the true essence of winemaking lies,” ends Yannick. 

By incorporating sophisticated technology such as temperature control and juice extraction, the small Seven Apart team can dedicate their time to where they really want to be: the vineyard.

Discover Vineyard Layout | Fitting The Site Properly

Napa Valley is exactly what you expect when you think of Wine Country: hillside wineries, bold cabernets, and vast expanses of neatly ordered grape vines. But while the image of perfectly parallel vineyard rows rising and dipping over rolling fields is certainly a sight to behold, there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye. Enter Vineyard Layout: the fourth secret to Seven Apart’s success. While the concept is not as lauded as soil or even climate, the positioning and arrangement of vines on a site has just as much of an impact on the quality of the final product. After all, as many would argue, great wine starts in the vineyard. So how exactly do the particulars of vineyard design impact the flavors and aromas that find their way into the bottle? We delve into the ins and outs of the topic with the help of our esteemed Vineyard Manager, Mike Wolf.

Pulling Apart The Pieces 

While it may sound simple, the concept of vineyard layout covers many different elements. As Mike explains, “It encompasses so many things, all the way from row direction to how you prepare the soil.” Other key aspects include the distance between rows and between vines within a row, the types of trellis and training systems to be used, the position of access aisles, and the partitioning of the site into blocks. 

The optimal layout for a particular vineyard depends in part on the grape variety to be grown there, but it’s much more complex than that. It’s critical to think about factors like climate, location, plot dimensions, and soil characteristics. Then you also have to make physical judgments about slope, aspect, elevation, and the risk of erosion, all while taking into account your winemaking goals, management practices, and economic considerations. “There are all these other things that come into play when you’re laying out a vineyard,” shares Mike. “It’s all connected. It’s really hard to pull apart all the little pieces, but they have to come together in the end.”

Figuring out how all these moving parts fall together to determine the ‘perfect’ design for a vineyard requires a mix of mathematical acumen and geological good fortune. And yet it’s critical to make sound layout decisions right at the start. As Mike points out, “You only get to plant the vineyard once, so you have to make it count.”

Configuring The Right Conditions 

Traditionally, vineyard layout was based on road and property lines. While these sorts of practical considerations still bear weight, nowadays, the layout is designed with yield and fruit quality in mind. Today’s viticulturists understand that vineyard configuration influences the vines’ interaction with soil, sunlight, and airflow. In other words, it determines how successful a vineyard is at harnessing Mother Nature’s gifts. This, in turn, impacts vine health, fruit ripening, and, ultimately, wine quality.

Row orientation, for instance, is one of the biggest factors influencing sun exposure. Get it wrong, and you risk sunscald on one side of the vine. Get it right, and you can optimize sunlight interception to promote even ripening of the grape clusters and enhance flavor development, resulting in wines with greater complexity, structure, balance, and aging potential. 

Similarly, row and vine spacing, which is closely related to planting density, plays a central role in achieving vine balance. Vine balance refers to a state of harmony between vegetative growth (the growth of leaves, stems, roots, and shoots) and fruit production. The right spacing can introduce a healthy amount of competition between plants to ensure that vigorous vines don’t jungle outwards at the expense of grape development. This helps to ensure that enough energy and resources are allocated toward sugar and tannin accumulation. Naturally, spacing also impacts sunlight exposure and airflow – the latter of which is essential for disease control as it helps to keep grape clusters dry and stave off the growth of mildew.

Trellis and training systems work together with row spacing and orientation to determine how much light, shade, and air a vine receives, and to facilitate vineyard operations. The layout choices made here – whether you train shoots upward in a vertical curtain or divide your canopy and train shoots downwards, for example – help to create the right conditions for a particular cultivar to thrive. And this shows in the wine.

In addition, vineyard layout can affect wine quality by directly impacting a team’s ability to manage the vine canopy – to prune, remove leaves, thin and position shoots. A poorly designed vineyard with spacing issues makes it difficult for staff and machinery to access vines for intervention. It’s also an obstacle to timely and efficient harvesting, and the consequences can be dire.

That said, as Mike explains, a good layout should minimize the need for extensive canopy management and manipulation. “If you get it right from the beginning, you wind up with a vineyard that you don’t have to be out there messing with all summer long. In my experience, some of the very best fruit comes from some of the lowest maintenance vineyards – ones that just fit the site properly.”

Stags Ridge and Base Camp: The Details That Make The Difference

Getting it right has long been a focus in Seven Apart’s Stags Ridge and Base Camp vineyards. Resting at the apex of Atlas Peak, on the back of a towering volcanic mountain, Stags Ridge is an unusual piece of land. When it was first planted in 1999, layout options were limited by the practical constraints of the plot – giant rocks and cobblestones scattered everywhere. But the configuration of elements has combined to produce some extremely resilient vines. The result is grapes that are truly expressive of the site, giving rise to world-class Cabernet Sauvignons with big, round tannins, velvety texture, and nuanced flavors.

The perfect positioning of vineyard rows plays a part in shaping the character of our wines, too. Stags Ridge rows run from East to West – an orientation that helps to capture and channel the cool afternoon breeze that drifts in from San Francisco Bay. This maritime draft helps to lower sugar and acidity levels in the fruit to ultimately yield wines that are both balanced and elegant.

Down below on the valley floor, Base Camp is an entirely different story. The 8-acre vineyard was recently replanted, giving Mike and the team a new opportunity to make layout decisions better suited to the location and the varieties grown here – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and a small amount of Sauvignon Blanc. 

While an East-West orientation works for Stags Ridge, here, the fruit benefits more from rows angled Northeast to Southwest. “This positioning offers fairly uniform sunlight throughout the day,” says Mike. “Ideally, the fruit shouldn’t know the difference between morning and afternoon. There should just be this nice, even light all the way through.” Of course, nice, even light means nice, even ripening and flavor development, yielding consistent quality in every bottle. 

The replanting also made space for the installation of a drainage system to prevent waterlogging and an innovative new trellis system. “It’s a modified vertical system. We’ve raised the height of the fruiting wire a bit,” explains Mike. Above that is a series of cross-arms positioned in a narrow V-shape. “And we use movable wires to spread the canopy out. We train the vines a bit differently, and we prune them a bit differently to make them comfortably grow into that canopy. Again, it’s about the notion of providing even sunlight to every berry all day long,” he adds. A major advantage of this system is that it allows small adjustments to be made to mitigate whatever’s set to be the biggest threat that season. The last few years, it’s been the heat. This year, it’s overzealous growth due to heavy rain. In this way, the integrity of the fruit, and the wine, is protected no matter what comes our way.

Truth be told, if you were to wander through either of Seven Apart’s vineyards, the level of thought and planning that goes into these sorts of layout choices might be lost on you. It’s the tiny details – the sort measured in inches and degrees – that make the difference. But trust us, it’s a difference you can taste in the glass.

Introducing the Discover Seven Apart Series

Like everything else at our winery, our name was created with intent.
When our founder Don Dady first viewed the property, he applied the principle his college professor had instilled in him while he was completing his economics degree. He shares:

“At the end of the semester, we had to present possible investments to Professor Nye. For each, we had to find seven compelling things that set the investment apart. If we couldn’t, it didn’t meet his standard to buy.”  

The concept of finding seven advantages that set something apart became a guidepost for Dady throughout his career. “When I discovered the property that is our winery today, we found so much more than seven reasons. We knew it was the perfect location for a worthy investment,” he shares. 

And so Seven Apart was born.

Introducing Our  Discover Seven Apart Series

Due to the smoke taint from the 2020 Glass Fire (read this journal if you’d like to learn more), the quality of the Stags Ridge vineyard grapes was compromised. As a result, we did not harvest any fruit from the Stags Ridge Vineyard and could not produce our Seven Apart Shale, Seven Apart Basalt, and Seven Apart Summit 2020 vintages. That’s why this year, Seven Apart will see only one release: the 2021 Seven Apart Expedition. With 1500 cases available, this veritable phoenix of wine will be released in September this year. But worry not! 

As we wait for our 2021 Expedition to mature to perfection, we invite you to join us on a different kind of wine adventure. Over the next seven months, we will be doing a deep dive into each of the following significant seven ingredients that lead to our growing success: 

    Our vines are grown in dense, volcanic rock soils providing exceptional terroir that result in incredibly complex and elegant wines. But what is it that makes the unique soils of Atlas Peak so special for growing our flagship variety, Cabernet Sauvignon? 
    At 1,475 feet above the valley floor, the vineyard sits above the fog line and enjoys the morning sun. Why does altitude matter in winemaking? And how exactly does it influence the quality of the grapes we grow? 
    The vineyards face the Pritchard Gap, which captures a breeze directly off the San Francisco Bay every afternoon. Explore the area with us as we learn how this cooling effect produces higher-quality fruit.
    The vineyard is perfectly positioned to channel the afternoon breeze to help lower sugar and acidity to desired levels. The right balance of sugar and acidity helps us craft wine that will age beautifully over the years. We chat with our legendary Vineyard Manager Mike Wolf to understand the importance of vine positioning and how we have set up our Stags Ridge and Base Camp vineyards. 
    When our cellar was first designed, Don Dady emphasized creating a multi-functional space that would guarantee success. Today, the cellar team has complete control over every step of the winemaking process. From hand-harvesting in the vineyard to selecting barrels for aging, we speak to our winemaking team to understand the vision for the cellar and why it works. 
    From pneumatic presses to an optical sorting machine, our team has access to some of the world’s most impressive winemaking equipment. But how does this equipment help improve the quality of our wine? We chat with our winemaking team to highlight some of their favorite machines and talk about how each of them helps us achieve the best possible results. 
    While the quality of grapes matters and the right setup is key, there would be no wine without a winemaker. We chat to our winemaking team to understand how they balance expressing the terroir while adding their artistic touch to each bottle.

Are you ready to embrace your inner wine geek? Along the way, you’ll learn not only about Seven Apart, but all about the micro-factors that can make a good wine great (including some useful anecdotes to impress your dinner party guests). Grab your hiking boots, and join us as we set out on a journey of discovery with Seven Apart!