Purple Wine + Spirits seeks sizable change to west Sonoma County winery

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At a time when a number of North Coast vintners have been trying to get permission to expand how much wine they can produce, Purple Wine + Spirits wants to dramatically reduce the number of bottles and trucks that roll out of its large west Sonoma County winery.

The change comes after modernization of its Napa Valley winery and plans to shift headquarters employees to Petaluma by fall.

The producer of wine brands such as Raeburn, Calisto, Scattered Peak, Avalon and Four Vines, spirits labels like D. George Benham, and wines for major retailers and local vintners proposes to cut total winemaking capacity at the 200,000-plus-square-foot facility in the tiny community of Graton in half, reduce truck trips by 41% and cut traffic from employees by moving the nearly half the 145 peak-production jobs there. The plan (purpleproposal.com) has been revised after a few rounds of input from the close-knit community and could go before Sonoma County planning commissioners and supervisors as soon as early next year, according to Aaron Webb, president.

“We’ve certainly accomplished a lot there over the years on the bottling front, but it’s even more ideally located for crush,” Webb said. “It’s amidst all those vineyards in Russian River and in west Sonoma (County).”

The facility is permitted to produce up to 3 million cases of wine, and the facility has been in the 2.5 million to 3 million range for years, Webb said. The proposed permit change would cap production at 1.5 million cases and add the ability to crush up to 10,000 tons of grapes annually, equivalent to 650,000 cases of wine. The facility’s water use afterward wouldn’t change, according to the proposal.

The difference in truck traffic going to and from the Graton facility would be dramatic with the proposed reconfiguration. The Graton site has about 12,000 truck trips a year, and that would fall to 7,500, including 500 truck trips in the fall for grape deliveries. But Webb expects truck traffic would be even lower, as case production there would not be anywhere near the proposed total capacity, with most bottling operations set to shift to Napa Valley in the next six months.

“A lot of what we’re reducing in employment in Graton is temporary employment when we ramp up and down for projects,” Webb said. The proposal calls for peak employment of 82 there. “We’re working with consultants to transition them to American Canyon or the distillery.”

About 25 employees already have shifted to American Canyon. By June, 12 are set to shift to new headquarters offices in Petaluma, and that location is set to be staffed up to 40 by fall.

Purple proprietor Derek Benham started Graton Distilling Co. in 2015, and it currently occupies 4,000 square feet of the facility plus some storage for the bourbon barrels.

Benham has owned the 128,000-square-foot American Canyon facility since purchasing the former Cartlidge & Brown winery in 2009. Bottling resumed there in January after a two-year hiatus, and a second shift is set to start this summer to handle increasing third-party production work, Webb said. It has capacity to crush up to 15,000 tons of grapes a year, but it’s limited by a water-use permit to 5,000 tons, or 325,000 cases.

Benham purchased the former DeLoach winery on Olivet Road in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley in 2005. It is permitted to crush up to 4,500 tons annually, or 250,000 cases.

About one-third of Purple’s current 5 million-case-a-year total bottling capacity and half its 9,500-ton crush capacity at the moment is for its own national wine and spirits brands and control brands for big retailers, Webb said. Custom services make up the rest.

After conversations with Graton residents, Purple proposes to put the crush pad in the middle of the complex to allow the buildings to shield surrounding homes from noise as trucks make the serpentine route in and out. And residents wanted the facility to be better illuminated at night, so downward-facing warm-color LED lights now are in the plan. An expert would be brought in to restore native vegetation to the south of the property.

Depending on how much grape-crushing equipment is added, the Graton facility reworking could cost $5 million to $10 million, Webb said.

Benham and his brother Courtney purchased the former Graton apple plant turned winery in 1992 for their Codera Wine Company venture. Benham started what became Purple in 2001.

An early breakout brand for Purple was Mark West pinot noir, which reached 600,000 cases a year, or more than half of Purple Wine’s production, by the time Benham sold it to Constellation Brands in 2012 for $163 million. The company now focuses on $18-plus wines and spirits.

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Contact him at jquackenbush@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4256.

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