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Monday, September 20, 2010, 3:26 am

Wine: Constellation launches 4-megawatt solar project

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    Also: ‘Sunburned’ grapes spur market; Frazier Winery files Chapter 11; Tapp expanding

    Clos du Bois

    Constellation Wines U.S., one of the world’s largest wine companies and operator of several North Coast wineries, last week unveiled a solar-electricity project at four California wineries — including Clos du Bois and Ravenswood – expected to be one of the largest such projects for the wine industry when completed by the end of this year.

    The multimillion-dollar project will include 17,000 solar panels producing a total of 3.95 megawatts of direct-current power, according to Greg Fowler, senior vice president of operations.  It is estimated to provide all the annual power needs for Estancia in Monterey County and Ravenswood in Sonoma, 75 percent of consumption at Clos du Bois in Geyserville and 60 percent of the Gonzalez winery in the city by the same name. The Gonzalez project was completed last year.

    The project was paid for in part via federal and state incentives. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provides a 30 percent tax incentive for solar projects this year. The California Solar Initiative provides significant energy rate incentives for solar energy projects through Pacific Gas & Electric Co.

    Rep. Mike Thompson at Clos du Bois

    Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena)

    Rep. Mike Thompson congratulated the wine industry for 19 solar projects in Sonoma County, producing 2.5 megawatts.

    “As an organic grower myself, I know it’s the right thing to do, but it’s expensive,” he said at the press conference Monday.

    Constellation expects the solar installations to save the company $1 million a year in energy costs.

    Company CEO Rob Sands said the project is one of several examples that sustainability is not a catchword for the world’s largest wine producer.

    “It’s important that people who make their living from the land be good stewards of the environment,” he said.

    Rob Sands

    Rob Sands

    He noted that the company completed a carbon footprint analysis for its global operations in 2009 and this year. All 13 wineries and all eight vineyards totaling 12,000 acres are certified by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance and post-crush grape waste is converted to energy.

    The company is looking at more large solar installations at Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville and Franciscan Estates winery in St. Helena.

    Constellation hired Southern California-based Genesis Renewable Energy, which has a project-management office in Sebastopol, to design, install, operate, monitor and maintain the systems. San Diego-based Silverwood Energy is the installation contractor. Local contractors used for the Ravenswood and Clos du Bois projects are metal roofer David Rodarmel Inc. and roof maintainer Wine Country Roofing, both of Santa Rosa.

    ***

    The late August and early September heat spikes finally brought out buyers for North Coast wine grapes unsold through most of the year, but the activity is more about replacing “sunburned” grapes than betting on a pickup in bottle sales, according to market experts.

    “For the market prior to the burn, there was very little activity,” said Brian Clements, partner and winegrape dealer at Turrentine Brokerage in Novato. “The increased interest now is mainly just to replace grapes that were burned.”

    The full extent of the damage won’t be known until harvest proceeds farther and the amount of damage is known.

    Estimates of North Coast crop damage range from 10 percent to 30 percent overall, depending on whether the tally is by grape buyers or sellers. Some varieties in certain areas were affected more, such as about 10 percent of Russian River Valley chardonnay, up to 50 percent of some pinot noir crops and up to two-thirds of some head-trained old-vine zinfandel.

    If 10 percent of Sonoma County’s estimated 50,000-ton chardonnay crop were harmed there may not be enough bulk chardonnay wine to fill the void, Mr. Clements noted.

    Following a season in which cool, damp weather dominated, temperatures in wine country soared from the 70s to around 100 degrees Aug. 23 through 25 and again Sept. 1 and 2.

    Vine canopy management to allow more sun, wind and pest-control measures to reach the clusters to deal with mold, mildew and European grapevine moth problems earlier in the season left clusters exposed to the sun. Often sun damage affects just sun-facing berries on one side of a cluster, but Mr. Clements said he’s seen a number of clusters with damage all the way through to the stem.

    “I’ve been in this business 23 years, and I’ve never seen sunburn like this,” Mr. Clements said.

    ***

    Bill Frazier, owner of 3,000-case-a-year Frazier Winery on Rapp Lane in the Coombsville area east of Napa, filed for Chapter 11 reorganization on Sept. 10 at the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Santa Rosa, according to court documents.

    “The Frazier brand is strong,” said Kim Frazier Caterino, head of marketing and operations. “We’re lucky to have very loyal customers.”

    The family business intends to emerge from court protection in six months.

    Mr. Frazier listed $2.61 million in assets, mostly $1.84 million in bottled wine, $439,350 in winery equipment and $249,000 in bulk wine. Sales were listed as $1.23 million in 2008, $1.55 million in 2009 and $741,800 as of the date of filing.

    Liabilities were stated as $789,251, including 2008 loans arranged by It’s a Jungle Out There, doing business as Vintage Capital. The stated value of the loan was $398,000 and secured by wine casegoods inventory, according to the filing. Sonoma-based Vintage Capital provides cash-strapped growers and vintners with takeout and interim financing.

    Vintage Capital sued in Napa County Superior Court in late August regarding alleged defaults on two operations and real estate loans to Mr. Frazier and the winery and vineyard businesses totaling $700,000, for loans of $192,000 and $400,000 plus interest and attorney fees, according to Vintage Capital’s attorney, Peter Bertrand of San Francisco.

    County court orders to turn over the properties were granted in late August and for wine inventory Sept. 9.

    The reorganization filing provides an automatic stay on those orders, pending bankruptcy court review.

    Unsecured claims in the reorganization filing include $180,000 in outstanding lease payments of 11 acres of vines owned by the Frazier’s vineyard operation, Lupine Hill Vineyard LLC. Other large claims include $32,000 in county property and state income taxes, $37,750 owed Umpqua Bank and $15,000 for winemaker Kirk Venge.

    In mid-July, Frazier Winery traded two barrels of 2008 cabernet sauvignon with Mr. Venge’s St. Helena company KV Wines to satisfy two past-due invoices totaling $10,000, according to court filings.

    A retired airline pilot, Mr. Frazier started planting grapes on the property in 1990, released his first wine in 1998, finished the winery in 2001 and the completed 10,000-square-foot cellar and hospitality cave in 2003. Retail prices range from $40 a bottle for the 2007 merlot to $110 a bottle for the 2006 Momento cabernet sauvignon reserve.

    A court meeting of creditors is set for Oct. 8 at 2:30 p.m. His attorney is Michael Fallon of Santa Rosa.

    ***

    Wine label printer Tapp Technologies Inc. plans to expand its California plant in Napa to a nearby facility this fall to increase capacity by three to four times, according to Bill Knopka, senior vice president and head of the Napa plant.

    Tapp plans to relocate its printing plant in November from 7,600 square feet at 504 Enterprise Court, much of which is office space, to 10,000 square feet at 580 Gateway Drive, most of which will be used for production. The current facility will operate during the transition.

    Tapp has been looking to expand its Napa plant for at least two years, but a wide selection of available industrial real estate and packaging demand prompted the move at this point, he said.

    “We’re seeing optimistic signs in the market and think this is an opportune time,” he said, noting inquiries about printing for new labels and reports of increased higher-end wine sales.

    A new waterless offset web press able to handle jobs more than 12 inches wide is set to be installed in the new location, and new converting equipment is en route for the two HP Indigo ws4050 digital offset presses already in use in Napa.

    The Napa plant already has 8-inch-wide waterless offset web presses, but the wider press will allow the Napa plant to have the same efficiency with large jobs as the company’s main plant at its headquarters in Vancouver, British Columbia, according to Mr. Knopka.

    Tapp hired about 10 new employees to operate the new equipment and will have them trained by the time the new location opens. The company now employs nearly 40 in Napa.

    In the lease deal, Steve Crocker and Bill Kampton of Colliers International in Fairfield represented Tapp and 580 Gateway owners Peter Riechers and Alan Spence, founders of civil engineering firm Riechers Spence & Associates of Napa.

    ***

    Napa-based direct-shipping transaction and fulfillment provider IBG, formerly known as Inertia Beverage Group, acquired 6-year-old wine telemarketing firm Call for Wine of Oakland.

    The Oakland company has 30 employees and nearly as many clients, including local brands part of the Treasury Wine Estates portfolio.

    Telemarketing is a fast-growing and effective method for direct sales of wine to consumers, particularly in this economy, according to IBG.

    •••

    Submit items for this column to Jeff Quackenbush at jquackenbush@busjrnl.com, 707-521-4256 or fax 707-521-5292.

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