Stephen Yafa's rich baritone becomes crestfallen as he describes a deadly natural disaster particular to northern California. Not earthquakes but freezes.
"I just got a one-acre, five-year lease on a Sebastopol Pinot Noir vineyard, and I lost most of it last weekend," laments Yafa, his voice befitting a wake. "Literally 60 percent of the vineyard looks like somebody came through with a blowtorch. Just killed it. After all the bud break and green leaves opening, now it's devastated. That's where a lot of the expense comes in to growing: the repair work you need to do."
Yafa, 66, is a seasoned wine writer and startup winemaker. He produces Segue Cellars an unfined, unfiltered line of Pinot Noir out of Owl Ridge Wine Services in Sonoma County's Russian River region. While shepherding his small-production brand from the vine to the bottle in 2005, Yafa befriended John Tracy, the technology-entrepreneur-turned-grape-guru who runs Owl Ridge's custom-crush operation in Sebastopol.
"I'd had an offer from another company to be kind of an advance man," Yafa recalls. "People often want to make really good wine but [need] a lot of guidance the first time around. It's a relatively inexpensive introduction to owning your own winery the difference between $1,000,000 and $10,000. Since I had done that on my own, the company felt I'd be great to go out to New York and so forth and put on seminars.
"Well, that project fell through. But one day last year I was telling [John] the story. And he said, 'You know, Steve, we've got, like any other winery, a huge amount of equipment and personnel I'd love to be able to do more with it. Should we be doing that here?'"
With that, the two enthusiasts seeded a partnership. A year or so later, Sonoma Grapemasters, their micro-crush surrogate winery, is helping a dozen clients realize a dream: to produce bottles on par with those that retail for $45 or more, at relatively little personal cost and with the commitment level of your average home hobby. Yafa and Tracy provide all the necessary essentials, but they encourage participants to be involved in as much of the one- to two-year process as they wish, from monitoring chemistry reports via email to punching down grapes by hand at harvest. Think of it as the oenophile's answer to the brave new world of self-published blogs or, reaching further back in time, to the press-your-own-45 days of early Nashville or Memphis.
"I'm a music writer, too, and that's a very good analogy," Yafa says with a laugh. "By and large, until the digital revolution came along, it was very hard for anybody to pick up a camera and go make a feature film. Now it may be too easy. But nevertheless, there's very much a populist movement in media."
Of the Grapemasters' first-year clientele, one has already gone commercial: John McDonald, owner of The Melting Pot fondue chain, is selling Carolyn, a Sauvignon Blanc with fruit sourced from the Russian River Valley's Giangunto Vineyard, in his West Coast restaurants. With an expected 2008 load of four barrels (or roughly 100 cases), McDonald is currently Yafa's largest producer. The program allows for single-barrel entry and can match clients to share in the cost of a barrel, which typically ranges from $5,700 to $9,500 depending on the varietal.
"Quality control is in many ways what we're all about," Yafa says. "But we're also giving people the opportunity to have an experiential education, in a way that would have been prohibitive in the past. And to come out with terrific, premium wine. So they're not just getting to use the equipment, or the know-how it's also to develop something that is worth the effort at the end of the day."
This concept of an onramp to professional winemaking is not entirely new. Companies like San Francisco's Crushpad provide many of the same access points for amateur vintners as does Sonoma Grapemasters. Where the latter differs, Yafa stresses, is in the experience.
"We start a little earlier," he explains. "We send you out into the vineyards. I think that's probably the highlight of it for many people. You do it in the morning you want the grapes to be cold. It's really kind of wonderful. I've been doing it forever, and I never get tired of it."
- Grapes are harvested for a small bottling at Sonoma Grapemasters.