Rack & Riddle

Rack & Riddle: Good for Mendocino County

Wine Notes by Heidi Cusick Dickerson

With a tasting room open only by appointment and a winery set up to handle a million gallons of custom made sparkling and still wine, Rack & Riddle fills a niche in the wine world. Custom crush services range from crushing the grapes, fermentation and barrel aging, to bottling include champagne-style sparkling wine production and case storage in the certified organic facility. Based in Hopland, three-year-old Rack & Riddle is on track to benefit Mendocino County’s economy and wine industry.

“We’re proud to be here,” say Rebecca Faust and Bruce Lundquist, the two partners who created this business. Both long time veterans of Sonoma wineries, Faust and Lundquist created Rack & Riddle when they found the former Duncan Peak storage facility for sale in Hopland.

“What we saw here was wine storage,” says Lundquist, the gregarious accountant and former partner of Longboard Vineyards, which is now made at Rack & Riddle.

“We wondered what could we do with this space?” Their wheels began to turn as he and Faust started working on a business plan that would use the warehouse - which at the time was floor to ceiling caselots of wine - and increase its potential. They wanted to incorporate their respective sparkling wine experiences and fill a need they envisioned in the wine industry. Synchronistically an opportunity arose that spurred them on.

Faust had worked for Piper Sonoma before the facility ownership changed to J Winery in 1996. Lundquist is a former general manager at J Winery in Healdsburg, which continued making Piper Sonoma sparkling wine when it purchased the facility. Piper Sonoma and Bearboat wine brands are owned by Remy Cointreau USA. When Faust and Lundquist learned the Bearboat winemaking contract was potentially available in the fall of 2007, they approached Remy Cointreau USA.

“We were invited to bid on the contract,” says Lundquist. When they landed the contract to make Bearboat wine, “things fell into place like dominoes,” recalls Lundquist, adding, “It was a wild ride that year.”

“We were thinking small scale,” says Faust, slim and demure with a self assured presence. They figured they would produce Bearboat and take on a few other clients and produce up to 100,000 cases maximum. By early 2007 they closed the deal for Bearboat production and also purchased the property and warehouse from Crawford family sisters Libby, Julie, and Katie. “It was a great day when we signed the contract and then closed the property,” says Faust, adding with reflection, “We were out on a limb and wondering is there a trunk?”

There was no time to ponder. “We had five trains lined up that had to start at the same time,” says Lundquist. They included financing, equipment purchases, real estate closure, other client contracts and all the usual pieces it takes to start a business from utilities to employees. Over the spring and summer of 2007, they renovated the facility and purchased the winemaking equipment.

The next year they added the Piper Sonoma contract. That meant retooling and doubling the warehouse space to accommodate the mechanical riddling racks and storage area sparkling wine requires. In addition to making a hundred thousand cases for Piper Sonoma, Rack & Riddle caters to producers who want to make small quantities of sparkling wine to sell in their tasting rooms.

One producer who took them up on the opportunity is Potter Valley’s organic grape grower Guinness McFadden who just released McFadden Vineyards Brut and sells it at his tasting room in Hopland. Another is long time Hopland winemaker Jim Milone who makes his Terra Savia Brut as well as his lineup of still wines at Rack & Riddle to sell at Terra Savia’s neighboring tasting room and olive oil production facility.

Located at the south end of Hopland off Mountain House Road, Rack & Riddle sits back from the road under the towering Duncan Peak to the west. Its cavernous size is demurred by the layout of the buildings and the surrounding vineyards. Only when you take a tour (by appointment only) can you grasp the magnitude of the facility with its 30 ft. high ceilings and 120,000 square feet under two warehouse roofs. The 17,000 square foot crush pad can accommodate anything from one-ton trucks to 20-ton semis.

“Our neighbor Chris Keiffer brings his grapes over in bins on a trailer he pulls with his tractor,” says Lundquist. Last year Keiffer waited in line to get his weigh tag while sandwiched between two eighteen-wheelers. “He brought his grapes over a ton and a half at a time,” says Lundquist. “We are as welcoming to small growers as we are to the driver with 40,000 pounds in one load.”

Rack and Riddle can crush from one to 20-ton lots. Temperature controlled stainless tanks, barrel storage, lab facilities and advanced technology are among the services offered by Rack & Riddle.

They also employ three winemakers with a range of experience. Winemaker Penny Gadd-Caster brings both still wine and sparkling wine expertise from working at Jordan Winery and J Winery in Healdsburg. Steve Ryan is the biodynamic and organic guru who came from Magnanimous in Ukiah. Lynn Chao came from Cameron Hughes, a negociant (a wine company that purchases grapes and wines from growers) which specializes in small and large lot high quality wine production. “We cover the spectrum—sparkling, still, boutique and large lots—with our good mix of industry vets who are excellent winemakers,” says Lundquist. “Wine producers can pick their favorite after interviewing all three of them.”

Because you don’t have to buy your own equipment, hire winemakers and store the wine “you can save tens of thousands of dollars going to a custom crush facility like ours,” says Lundquist. A nearby winemaker who had an established brand found he could save between $50,000 and $80,000 a year by using Rack & Riddle.

Lundquist, 53, and his wife Denise are the parents of six ranging in age from 12 to 23. They live in Petaluma. “I always wanted to be a farmer and this is the closest I have come to it,” he says as he looks out at the vineyards adjacent to the winery.

Faust, 50, lives in Healdsburg with her husband Allen are the parents of three children. After 17 years working for wineries, Faust “always wanted to be an entrepreneur.” She and Lundquist met while working for different wineries and sensed a latent business partnership in each other. “We share a common work ethic,” says Faust. “And so do the other two dozen people who work here,” adds Lundquist.

Thirty acres of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah grapes are farmed organically (giving Lundquist a taste of farming) and the entire facility is certified organic. In addition to producing Bearboat and Piper Sonoma for Remy, Rack & Riddle has another two dozen or so clients to that total around 100,000 cases of custom crush wines. The facility’s capacity is 500,000 cases.

Rack & Riddle participated in the recent county-wide Crab and Wine Days festival and will also be open for Hopland Passport the first weekend in May. You can find five different Rack & Riddle sparkling wines and a small amount of still wine including Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Zinfandel in the tasting room, which is open by appointment or during the festivals. A new label Nuestro Vino features an about to be released Sauvignon Blanc, grown just across the river in Hopland.

“It would be great to turn more local grapes into wine,” says Lundquist noting the high percentage of grapes that go out of Mendocino County (about seventy percent) to be made into wine in Napa and Sonoma. He and Faust find that they are only working 98 percent of the time these days, a little less than the first two years. But it’s worth it as they continue to bring in more clients. Faust adds, “And we appreciate being part of the green footprint that defines Mendocino County.”

Rack & Riddle’s Brut Rose is crisp, lively and has a strawberry undertone that made a lovely accompaniment with strawberry ricotta crepes and sausage cheese strata at an Easter brunch. And their Brut is light, slightly creamy with a flute full of tiny bubbles that paired perfectly with our Easter ham and roasted carrots.

For more information on Rack & Riddle contact the Mendocino Winegrape and Wine Commission at www.TrueMendocinoWine.com or www.rackandriddle.com.

Heidi Cusick Dickerson writes Wine Notes for the Ukiah Daily Journal on behalf of the Mendocino County Winegrape and Wine Commission.

Next week: Spirit Canyon Vineyard

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