roc solid Print
Written by Nikitas Magel   

rocky soil

A Dream Solidifies into the Wine Caves of VinRoc, atop Napa's Atlas Peak

Between the rocky soil of its hillside vineyard and the granite encountered during the excavation of its wine cave, VinRoc has had a solid theme of rock running through its story.  I had initially met its proprietors, Kiky and Michael Parmenter, during the annual Family Winemakers tasting event, whereupon I sampled wines from their small but super-premium portfolio.  Months later, I sat down with Michael to learn more about  the handcrafting of VinRoc's robust and elegant Cabernet Sauvignon as well as the building of its rather unique wine facility.  What I gathered turned out to be an inspiring story about the seemingly effortless evolution of a mountaintop brand and its ambitious drive towards quality.

Located at the top of Napa Valley's Atlas Peak, the grapevines of VinRoc Wine Caves experience an elevation that's high above the fog belt and soil nutrition that's minimal at best.  In the span of only a couple of vintages, the Parmenters have learned to navigate the challenges and reap the benefits of these conditions to raise grapes rich in texture and concentrated in flavor.  As a result, they've succeeded in crafting a powerful and sensuous Cabernet Sauvignon from the steep and rocky vineyard, which is all the more impressive given their rather recent arrival to the world of winemaking.  And true to its namesake, the wine is rock solid to boot, with accolades from both the San Francisco International Wine Competition and Wine Spectator's own James Laube.  All the more compelling is the context of the wine's production: a cave literally excavated from the hillside, which has served not only as the winery itself but also as a setting in which to receive visitors with ambiance and flair.

NM:  How did this all begin?  What led to the decision to plant vines way up here on Atlas Peak and then produce from them an ambitious Napa Cabernet?

"It didn't seem obvious at the time that what we were going to do was put in a vineyard, because there weren't that many vineyards up here [on Atlas Peak] compared with down on the valley floor, where if you had a piece of property, you wouldn't even think twice about having a vineyard."

MP:  We bought the property in 1999.  We had been living in L.A. at the time, which is in fact where my wife and I met and where had lived for 27 years.  I was thinking about a career change, as was my wife, and we were at the same time thinking about buying some property and we really wanted it to be in wine country.  We weren't sure what we were going to do, but we decided it would something to do with wine and possibly food.  I was in the shoe business for twenty some years and Kiky was involved in the real estate, and got the point of wanting to do something outside the city because we'd been feeling the rat race wanted to drop it down a gear.  And once we bought the property, we came up here and got interested in researching the properties of the property — the soil, the climate, etc.  It didn't seem obvious at the time that what we were going to do was put in a vineyard, because there weren't that many vineyards up here [on Atlas Peak] compared with down on the valley floor, where if you had a piece of property, you wouldn't even think twice about having a vineyard.  We had a hard time even finding out about hillside vineyards.  We took three years of classes at Napa Valley College, but most of the things we learned were focused on the valley floor, which is very different from up here.  So I had a lot of questions and had to research things on my own.  And in addition to the classes, I learned most of it by doing — things like helping a couple of my neighbors who had vineyards at that time, especially during harvest time.

vinroc_winery_small NM:  So you were in the process of learning viticulture while you were growing vines.

MP:  Yes, because in Napa, it takes a year and a half to get the permit.  Any land that's not totally flat requires permitting because of hillside erosion issues, along with concerns about environmental impact and the like.  And then you have to set up everything even before you put in the vineyard.  In 2000, we put up the trellising, really everything except the vines, and then in 2001 planted the vines.  And even after you do that, it takes three years before your first real crop — four years up in the hillsides.  So there was plenty of time to be studying and learning during that whole process.  But with some of it we still had to make some educated guesses and get other people's opinions, since we weren't sure how to apply some of the information we learned to the hillsides.  Of course, since then a lot has been done regarding hillside [vineyard] development, but I had a hard time finding information at that time.

NM:  It wasn't until well into your second vintages before you actually had a winery to press and ferment your grapes.  Had you initially planned, or at least considered as a possibility, to build an actual winery, or was it a step you decided upon later?

MP:  Well, it wasn't like we sat down in 1999 and had this all planned out.  It just evolved.  I did have it in the back of my mind to put in the vineyard, but not much about building the winery.  That evolved first from the fact that we had plenty of land so we had the room, and secondly from what we realized during the custom crush of the first vintage.  I saw that to make more than the few barrels that we did the first year, to do it the way we wanted to would require us having our own winery.  I didn't know it was practical and what was involved with permits, so I got involved with the process of finding out just out of curiosity.  And the research I did told me that, given our location along with a few other factors, that the cave was a great way to go.  So, then I applied to have it permitted and found that the application process was [ironically] faster and easier than it was for putting in the vineyard; it was pretty straightforward.  And in some ways, digging the cave was probably easier than building a structure.

NM:  One huge advantage to having chosen this location for your property, up on Atlas Peak, is that the natural topography allowed you the option of digging a cave!

MP:  You're absolutely right.  We joke that the property is 35 acres horizontally, but 70 acres vertically since it's so hilly.  Digging the cave made a lot of sense.  It was a lot easier to do than to find a wide area to clear, level, and grade for the winery.  Plus, as we learned, the cooling costs for a cave are nominal.  So, everything just kept coming together; as we got further into it, things made sense for us to go to the next step and the step after that.  And as I mentioned, we got the permit pretty quickly.  [At that point], I said, "Wow, we got the permit, I guess we better build a cave!"  But I didn't really have anything but just drawings and some ideas from working with a few people on what I wanted to do, so then we hired somebody to build the cave.

NM:  What's entailed in all that?  Because your wine cave is really beautifully designed: the lighting, the curvature, the texture, the layout, the nooks, and all these features.  It looks like an old cave but has such ambiance!

"Digging the cave made a lot of sense. It was a lot easier to do than to find a wide area to clear, level, and grade for the winery. Plus, as we learned, the cooling costs for a cave are nominal."

MP:  The technology is basically from the construction of tunnels; that's the equipment they use.  We hired a company to come in, who specializes in caves, and they use what they call a roadheader — a big ball with teeth on it at the end of an arm, and it just goes through and grinds out the rock.  But [once the major excavation was completed] my wife did all the lighting, the sconces, and all these ideas for the finishing touches.  And with all the things she did of that sort, during the construction, the contractor kept saying wouldn't work.  But they did!  And when the guys were pouring the floor, she had guys bring in large rocks to use as design elements to make it all look more like a cave than just a tunnel.  And then the contractors were like, "What, is she crazy?  We just spent all this time moving all this rock out of here, and she's wanting to bring rocks back in?"  {laughing}  So, [using her architectural talents] she's been very creative and thinking in terms of design and aesthetics, though the contractors never thought of these things nor had they ever done them before!  And the funny part is, afterwards, the contractor went around taking pictures of all that, posted them on their website, and said, "These are things that we can do" — the same very things my wife had suggested which he said we couldn't or shouldn't do!

vinroc_bottle_small NM:  Sure, they were thinking more pragmatically, focusing on getting clearing of the rock out of  here. Now, speaking of rock, is that where the name VinRoc comes from?

MP:  Oh, yeah.  You have to understand that we dealt with rock since day one.  When we put in the vineyard, we joked that with every rock we pulled out, two grew back!  Although it's hard to see with the cover crop, the vineyard is extremely rocky.  We moved a lot of rock out of there, but the soil is still extremely rocky.  And so rock was part of the consciousness of our efforts from the get go — everything we've done, we had to deal with rock.  Certainly, then, it came full circle when we dug through solid rock to create the winery.  VinRoc became the obvious choice [for a name].  And that's also why the name includes 'wine caves' — it's a significant part of our story that we have this facility here, a cave built into the rock.

NM:  Rock is also a significant part of the story for the style of the wine itself.  Tell me more about and the vineyard's stony soil, and the Napa Cabernet that you ultimately produce from it.

MP:  We're extremely respectful of the fact that it all starts down in the vineyard.  We never have to worry about stressing the vines, and it's a perfect balance with having just enough of the right things: a great southwest-facing exposure, our location just above the fog belt, long hours of sunlight, cooler temperatures at night.  Everything just fits into place perfectly.  And all those great things balance with the rocky conditions and the fact that the soil doesn't have a lot of nutrients so that the vines really have to struggle.  On the vines, that results in very small berries with intense flavors, structure, and character that we select and pick only a ton at a time.  And we treat the fruit very gently throughout the entire process — we sort the fruit, we don't pump the must in big tanks, and we ferment one ton at a time.  It's all part of what we decided we wanted to do, to make real quality-driven wine.  It makes no sense for me to even try to be a mid-sized winery.  And so if I'm going to be a small production winery, well under a thousand cases, then what's the point of making just an 'okay' wine?  There's really only one choice: if you're going to make 500 cases, why not go and make the very best wine you can?

NM:  So, your first commercially-released vintage was 2004, making the current release your second, and the upcoming 2006 vintage your third.  Has there been anything really significant you've learned thus far in the span of only those two vintages?

MP:  What we learned was that we've really been guided.  I cannot look back and tell you that we did all these things because we knew that it was the right way to go.  It was more like divine providence or something guiding how things evolved and turned out.  There's very little that I would do differently, but I wasn't really sure about anything going into it.  With everything that we did, as I look back, we ended up doing the right thing.  The only slight difference, as the vines mature, has been our decision to try to go a little riper and fuller.  And that's just because it would help soften the tannins a little bit; up here [on the hillside] we have such tannic wines…

NM:  And there's also the acidity…

"It's a perfect balance with having just enough of the right things: a great southwest-facing exposure, our location just above the fog belt, long hours of sunlight, cooler temperatures at night. Everything just fits into place perfectly."

MP:  …yes, which balances it all much better.  So, we'll probably go a little bit riper [in future vintages].  But it'll only be a fractional difference.  And we see a lot of consistency: '05 was the most tannic and the biggest, though we've had great response to it; but with '06, '07, '08 there's a nice consistency.  And I think it's because the way we are harvesting — a ton at a time — allows us to get the grapes uniformly ripe and though maybe from year to year there were some differences, it helped us balance out those differences.  Because of the way the vineyard matured, we picked a little later last year, and we were able to still harvest another section that was ready because we don't have to harvest all at once.  But none of this was planned.  I was thinking we were going to have to buy [large fermentation] tanks, not knowing exactly what some of the options were.  And I had it in the back of my mind this idea [of harvesting and fermenting small lots], but I thought, "Nah, nobody does that."  Sure, a lot of custom-crush places have all these little batches of wine that they're making, but I didn't think that made sense to do what we wanted to do and figured we should buy a big stainless steel [fermentation] tank.  But when I started talking to some people, they said it was actually a great idea to keep everything separate and ferment the grapes in my small one-ton bins.

vinroc_cave_small NM:  So, you're harvesting in stages, accommodating for varying ripeness levels, and then fermenting separately in very small lots.  That has got to be immensely labor intensive!

MP:  Absolutely!  And costly, too.  I'm picking four or five times what I could easily pick all at once.   It's much more labor intensive, much more hands-on; I have to bring the crews in to help pick every time; we have to go through the whole set-up and tear-down process, which means I've got all those bins to go through and do a hand punch-down over a period of a month, rather than all at one time.  But I didn't approach it like someone who had researched it and then done it for a long time; it was just something that occurred to me and it made sense, but I wasn't sure until I asked and was told it was actually a great idea.  I've even had people come in here and ask me, "Well, where are your tanks?  How come you have no tanks?"

NM:  Well, it goes back to what you were saying earlier.  That is, when you're making wine at this high level of craftsmanship quality and low level of production quantity, it makes perfect sense to be harvesting in multiple waves and fermenting in small lots.  So, your decision process — although it developed for practical reasons, because of the resources you had initially — actually turns out to be far more quality-minded.

MP:  And that's been exactly the process so many times, as I look back.  I've made decisions because they would seem like the most logical or practical or intuitive way to approach something, but not because I knew from any experience that it was the right was to approach it.  [That's been the case with] all these choices, and as I look back I don't see one of those that I would have done differently.

NM:  Are you making the wine on your own?

MP:  Yeah.  Now, I have a friend, Dave [Guffy] — but he's not officially a consultant so we can't call him that!  Dave helps me a lot; he's very, very experienced.  In fact, he was the one whom I bounced the idea off of to go with no [fermentation] tanks.  But he's not officially connected with us at all, because he's Director of Winemaking for Hess Collection.  He's in charge of all their wineries, their wines, their vineyards — and he's had a ball coming up here seeing what we're doing that's totally at the other end of the spectrum!  It's great because if there's a problem, I can say, "Hey, Dave, I'm not sure about such-and-such."  And he'll say, "Well, why don't you do such-and-such, and see if it works out."  He'll come up sometimes and we'll have fun trying to blend some wines, and I'll ask him what he thinks.  Because you need somebody to bounce things off of, to ask the 'what to you think' kind of questions.

NM:  So, basically, what it boils down to is that your winemaking experience is relatively limited and quite recently acquired — you began doing all this only about six years ago.  And yet you still received accolades recently from the mainstream wine press!

MP:  You're correct.  But I do want to give credit to Napa Valley College — who is, in fact, going to be only the second educational institution in California to be bonded [as a winery].  First off, while I was taking classes there, they were building this really neat, state of the art winery — and a lot of the ideas I got for what I wanted to build into our own winery came from that.  The instructor overseeing it all had all these things put into the winery and I was able to ask her why.  [Through that process], I learned about exactly what I wanted to put into our winery — it was great being exposed to that and it just so happened that the timing was perfect.  Secondly, because of the way they're set up, I spent an entire year making red wine at the college.  And so that gave me a great basis to work off of.  Because, regardless of how many years of experience you might have, you have to have some kind of a base on just procedure alone.  So, those two things I got from [and have to give credit to] the college.

Beyond that, people might ask me a question about some other wine, but I would have to say that my knowledge and focus is limited to making the wine I make.  Sometimes they'll ask me a question thinking that I'm this global winemaker that I'm not: "I don't know!"  I mean, I may have an idea or I could suggest something or give them the right direction to go in, but it may be something that I truly haven't experienced.  So, all my focus, after going through getting the basics from the college, has been how to make the best Cabernet Sauvignon — not red wine [in general], but specifically Cabernet.  And everything we do here in the winery is about that — even the basket press I use, which is really [in design] an old fashioned press, only a modern version from Italy with hydraulics and a stainless steel basket.  I could have bought a bladder press, which most wineries use, but my research told me — especially for Cabernet Sauvignon — that that's the best press to use.  And I've now noticed that some of the very high end wineries are using basket presses (of course, much bigger) instead of bladder presses.  But I didn't do it because of these other wineries, I did it because I just did enough research and felt there was a good reason for it: you're pressing grape against grape.  Now, if you ask me what's the best press for Zinfandel, I could guess but I don't know.  But I do know that for Cabernet, that's the best press.

vinroc_barrel_small NM:  So, you're a newcomer to the world of wine with an admittedly solid foundation of wine knowledge under your belt.  But a significant number of the major decisions you've made not only in establishing the vineyard and building the winery, but in producing the VinRoc brand, have been borne of hunch and intuition, peppered with occasionally solicited advice.  And this is all in the context of making what really amounts to a super premium Napa Cabernet from limited grape tonnage harvested and fermented using very costly practices.  It sounds to me like you're quite the risk-taker!

MP:  Mmm, hmm.  I think that's definitely true.  The only thing I have to say, though, as far as the risk-taking is concerned: that's really more my wife, Kiky, than I.  I think it goes back to her background being successful in real estate development, where there's always risk.  That's her background, whereas I tend to be a little more conservative.  Now, as far as some of the other things, over and above the initial idea to pull the trigger — which is hers; she's more the one to say 'let's do it' — that's where I come in.  I'm the one to say that if we're going to do then this is how I think we ought to do it.  But I might otherwise have been hesitant to go ahead and do it if it weren't for her and her confidence.  She's very confident, she believes in me, she believes in what we're doing, and I might not have been quite as aggressive about doing without her support and her wanting to see it happen. And as I said earlier, everything we've done has seemed to be the right decision.  And that's not bragging; it's not because I'm smart — I just think we were guided.  And she also feels very much that way.  When we bought the property, everything seemed to fall into place for us to be where we are now, and we think it's going to continue as we make what I think, in years to come, one of the best cult wines in Napa Valley.

NM:  Is that your goal?

MP:  Oh, sure.  Yeah.  I mean, it's never going to be big.  That's why I said, if we can't be big, we've got to be the best.  I hate to be mediocre.  I hate to be in the middle.  If I'm going to do something and can't be big, I want to be the best.  And that's our goal.  I want people to think of us as one of the ultimate examples of high-end, Napa-made cult Cabernets.

NM:  What are the challenges you face planting and harvesting grapes and making wine from those grapes specifically here on this patch of Atlas Peak?  And I mean challenges that you know other appellations don't struggle with.

MP:  Certainly compared to the valley floor and most of the other well-known areas in Napa, with the soil here you wouldn't think of growing any other agricultural crop on the piece of land where we have our vineyard.  It's rocky and there's really not even a lot of soil to work with, to begin with.  And we've got all kinds of issues around soil nutrients.  From that point of view, it's very challenging especially to get the vintage started.  And then every year, we face some kind of issue where we really have to watch the water — we obviously have to irrigate.  We do what they call petiole sampling every year, where we look at the uptake of nutrients in the vine — Kiky is always joking that we worry more about our vines' nutrition than our own.  So, the challenge has been just growing grapes.  Early on, I hadn't even understood how growing up here [at this aspect and elevation] was different from the valley floor; I had to really research it.  Though, as I said earlier, we now know that the combination is great: rocky and nutrient-deficient soil, but the climate is perfect for it.

"With the soil here you wouldn't think of growing any other agricultural crop on the piece of land where we have our vineyard."

But it's Mother Nature you're dealing with!  We got hit with a frost about this time last year, and we'd never had frost quite like that.  In fact, I talked to some very experienced people about the damage that we all sustained, and found that no one had ever experienced it that before.  Sure, we've have had frost this time of year, but it got so cold that it did more damage than most people had ever seen!  Typically on the hillsides, even though we're cooler, we don't get frost damage because the cold air moves down [towards the valley floor].  But it wasn't that kind of frost damage; it didn't pool — typically, the cold air pools, so if there is any damage in our vineyard, it's down at the bottom of the hill.  In that case, the pooling didn't happen.  It got so cold that it actually froze the vine tissue, not just the buds.  Then we found — and almost everybody who experienced the frost damage in 2008 — that even the yields came in much lower than we projected and the berry weights themselves were off.  We're all realizing now that it was all because of the frost.  It's very likely a cumulative type of thing.  And then on the flip side, we have heat spikes, where you things might be going along great  during the season, and then all of a sudden you have a number of 100+ ºF days in a row.  In a case like that, we might irrigate that much extra to keep the vines from over-stressing.

vinroc_sign_smallGetting back to your question about challenges specific to this site… sure, all those things I mentioned — the frost, the heat spikes, etcetera — affect everybody, [regardless of vineyard location].  But all those things are amplified up here because it's a much tougher area to grow, so anything that Mother Nature throws becomes that much more of a challenge.  Whereas on the valley floor, most of which [eons ago] was river bottom, the dirt is very rich, very fertile, and very deep — all making for rigorous vines — so their base is stronger and more robust, allowing those vines to better withstand any extremes.

NM:  So, in short, the vines up here are 'living one the edge,' so to speak.  They're already struggling, even to just survive, let alone thrive, and so any climatic spike threatens their existence that much more.  But then, on the flip side (spikes notwithstanding) the constant state of just enough stress potentially makes for smaller berries with more concentrated flavors…

MP:  I know where you're going with that, and you're absolutely right.  But another thing that really affects some of the red grapes, especially Cabernet, is the idea of the vegetative characteristics you can get with too much shoot growth.  And that's why growers down in the valley do things to try to keep the shoots under control.  There's a correlation between how much green growth there is on the vine to how much vegetative flavors end up in the berries and then ultimately in your wine.  So, that's the other plus [of growing up on the hillsides]: we don't have to battle that vigor like people down in the valley do all the time.  And that's really the big advantage here.  In fact, one person told me, "I love your vineyard because there's no vigor" — which you don't say about any other agricultural crop!  But, of course, in the end, we're still walking a much tighter line as far as the potential for disaster is concerned.  It's a trade-off.

NM:  And when everything comes together, it makes for a sensational wine.  Whom do you see it appealing to the most?  What kind of customer do you think most appreciates the VinRoc brand and vision?

MP:  I think that our biggest fans right now are people who obviously like good red wine, but who are also interested in the story behind the wine.  They'll most likely know that we're small and that they can't simply buy our wine just anywhere.  But typically, they'll want to know a little bit more about us.  We get requests from people who want to visit and see what we're doing.  And once they do, they realize that we're doing this all ourselves and that the wine had an identity and is really connected to this place, rather than being just a product.  And it's not just the consumer — there's a wine shop in Sacramento who's doing quite well with our wine because the owner knows our story and tells it to customers, and the same thing with a couple of restaurants in the area.

In addition to its estate-produced Napa Cabernet, VinRoc also produces a line of wines from both estate and externally sourced fruit under the proprietary name of Enjoie: RTW, a Bordeaux blend, and Enjoie, a dry rosé.  To learn more about all of these wines and how to get them, visit VinRoc Wine Caves online. v