Estate Crush: Negating Negative Space

How did a twenty minute interview with Bob Colarossi at Estate Crush in Lodi turn into an hour-long conversation with Vince de la Cruz, a Florida-based rock bassist who lists among his songwriting credits ‘Walking on Sunshine’?

It’s all part of the serendipitous, convoluted labyrinth of wine, women and song.

Vince de la Cruz was the only cool-looking Wave

Vince de la Cruz was the only cool-looking Wave

And by women, of course I mean Kimberley Rew and Katrina Elizabeth Leskanich, who along with de la Cruz and Alex Cooper formed the ‘80s rock band Katrina and the Waves. Their monster hit ‘Walking on Sunshine’ wound up as the crown jewel in EMI’s catalog and one of the publishing company’s biggest all-time earners.  Financial returns were in the stratosphere thanks to the numerous commercial deals the song generated, and writing credits, split between band members, wound being a royalty gift that just keeps giving.

As a result, a private wine label (called ‘Walkin on Sunshine,’ to no one’s great surprise) was well within the means of Mr. de la Cruz, but the rather surprising  upshot of various quotes and quotables is that a private label of top-flight Old Vine Zinfandel is remarkably accessible to us all.

So, let’s start with Bob Colarossi, whose venture into Lodi winemaking is as interesting and unlikely as is de la Cruz’s—and nearly as late in life.

Bob Colarossi

Bob Colarossi

Colarossi is a Boston boy who cut his business and marketing teeth in the world of sports; prior to moving to California in 2005 he was president of the Massachusetts Sports Commission and CEO of USA Gymnastics. He played an active role in both the Athens and Sydney Olympics, and if you remember the cute, potent, medal-winning little 2004 women’s team, Colarossi was as responsible for that was Vince de la Cruz for cute, potent, medal-winning little ‘Walking on Sunshine’. 

But Bob has an equal passion for biking, and as a part of the Anschutz Entertainment Group he was instrumental in launching the Amgen Tour of California. Along the way, he fell in love with wine country and after the race was in the can, revving up his marketing brain while looking for a reason to hang around, he recognized an unfilled niche in the growing custom crush industry…

Which I’ll explain as soon as I explain the concept of ‘custom crush’ to anyone outside the industry who actually thinks that every bottle of wine on the market comes from a brick-and-mortar winery.

Typical custom crush house

Typical custom crush house

In fact, a surprisingly large number of wines are created, bin to bottle, lot to label, in ‘virtual wineries’ by people hired to do the job under a licensing agreement.  This involves a facility that may or may not be attached to an established winery, but which possesses the equipment necessary to crush, ferment, filter and store wine under your personal label.  The label owner’s primary interest is in marketing the product; he or she may have as much or as little input into the actual viniferous product as they desire.  Some wines are assembled entirely by a consulting winemaker at the crush house, with only cursory direction supplied by the client; in other cases, the client is part of the team who adds his two, three or four cents worth every step of the way.  A crush facility may simply lease equipment to winemakers, who then do everything themselves, but with Estate Crush, insurance prevents much ‘hands on’ assistance with the actual nuts and bolts of the  winemaking process.  But Colarossi engages the customer with gobs of collaboration, from yeast choices to fermentation methods to the sort of oak treatment desired—decisions which are all critical to the quality of the product.

Such facilities are legion throughout California, primarly because they allow someone to enter the wine business with a minimal outlay of cash.  Establishing a physical winery may require an investment of between $5 and $20 million; when you use a crush facility, expenses are minimal and wholly dependent on the quantity and quality of the wine you want to produce.

Which brings us back to Bob and his eureka moment.

estate crushc“There were dozens of one-stop houses already established when I wrote my business plan, but all of them had a five or ten-ton crush minimum.  I saw a huge negative space in the market, a wide opening: Nobody operated a crush house for customers with smaller budgets and who simply wanted to make less wine.”

It was a niche into which Vince de la Cruz fit.  Vince wanted to make a private label primarily—and unabashedly—for bragging rights and personal consumption.

Ten tons of crushed grapes is the equivalent of 600 cases of wine.  In which case, according to Bob, “You’d better make something you like, because if you can’t sell it, you’re going to have to drink it.”

A one-ton crush equals about 60 cases—a much more manageable bottle bundle, whether you want to market it, drink it, or give it away to friends at Christmas with your band’s most famous song emblazoned on the label.

And that was Vince de la Cruz’s ultimate mission.  ‘Walking on Sunshine: The Wine’  is not commercially available, even to fans who proposed to their spouses while considering that syrupy New Wave anthem as ‘our song’.

mens journal“It was something I did for fun,” Vince said. “I went through the process with Bob at Estate Crush after tasting wines in Lodi, tried samples with him and came up with something I thought was ‘me’.”

I know that sounds like a hair-restorer testimonial on some ad of the back of Men’s Journal, but it is pretty much verbatim.  And precisely why Bob Colarossi offered to hook me up with Vince: It was a real-time example of somebody reasonably well-known who had a solid experience with his small-lot services.

Of course, the opportunity to rap with de la Cruz about the current state of rock and roll,  life in the fast lane followed by life in the more laid back lane and John Fogerty’s price tag for a ten-minute phone interview for this book compared to his fee—my honest, open-minded opinion of his new album, ‘Do Your Mind?’

vince coverI didn’t mind, and I did listen, and I would not be plugging it if I didn’t dig it:  The first cut, ‘Livin’ The Dream’ is fun, catchy, musically competent bubblegum, and if we’re honest, we all like tunes in that genre.  ‘Patience’ is slower, moodier—a retro ballad with a nice metal lead riff; ‘The World Is Your Oyster’ is a sort of an echoey, psychedelic ramble through canyons of late ‘60s rock, with another hot lead.  The music is solid, the writing good.  If there’s another ‘Walking on Sunshine’ in there somewhere, it is for cannier listeners than me to unearth.

Meanwhile, back at the crush, I wanted to get some idea of how much somebody might have to lay out for sixty cases of top flight Lodi Old Vine Zinfandel.  Going in, I assumed might be prohibitive for a hack like me without a hit record to shore up the 401(k).

Bob and Alison Colarossi

Bob and Alison Colarossi

So I asked Bob Colarossi to ballpark a quote for me (and you, by default), specifying costs to include the best fruit from a top Lodi vineyard, a shred of logic based on the premise that when all other factors are equal, the quality of the grapes is what determines the quality of the wine. Yet, per-ton grape cost is hardly the top price driver in a bottle of wine—a superb ton of fruit in Lodi might run you $1400, whereas as a ton of no-great-shakes Zinfandel might be half that.  Spread over 60 cases, that means the difference in actual cash outlay is less than a dollar per bottle.

Going for the gusto, in this case, seems like a no-brainer.

What Bob’s brain and those his several on-staff winemaking consultants offer in the initial meeting is full disclosure—a come-to-Jesus explanation of their unique winemaking protocol.  Your job is to outline your goals and budget, the kind of wine you want to produce and why.  From there, fruit sourcing decisions and an achievable timeline can be established.

Once you pull the trigger, Estate Crush keeps precise records of every transaction, including weight of initial delivery of grapes, crushing and destemming, a cold soak of up to 72 hours—a somewhat trendy technique meant to improve color and aromatics—and (at your request) the addition of SO2  to prevent rogue fermentations from beginning.

Alison does a punch-down

Alison does a punch-down

The next step is yeast inoculation, acid adjustment and nutrient additions if required (Zinfandel fermentation may ‘stick’, especially if the fruit is extremely ripe) and daily punch-downs to keep things active. After that, your wine will undergo a secondary malolactic fermentation if you so wish; this softens some of the high acidity that Zinfandel is prone to.

Throughout the process, full laboratory analyses are done on-premise, including daily temperature and sugar-level reads until the wine has reached the specified level of sweetness.  It doesn’t matter if you are present in loco or if you, like Vince de la Cruz, are two thousand miles going loco in Florida.  Bob sends you all the pertinent parameters via email, and if you want anything done differently, or adjustments made, they are a mouse-click away.  Everything is customized to your specs.

I had this goddamn song stuck in my head for days...

I had this goddamn song stuck in my head for days…

After fermentation, you may choose to purchase oak barrels for aging, If you go that route, based on a standard quote, your wine rests comfortably for up to ten months wine inside an climate controlled barrel room kept at 58° and 85% humidity.   Additional aging time can be purchased like putting coins in a parking meter; it all depends on your budget and your objective.  If your pockets are deep enough,  I have no doubt that you could hire Vince de la Cruz to sing ‘Walking on Sunshine’ to your barrels while they age and I also have no doubt that Bob Colarossi would be glad for the entertainment.

Meanwhile, since the entire process results in some inevitable evaporation, Bob’s crew tops up your wine every six weeks with leftovers from the original run or from blending wine he keeps at hand.  Here, the words ‘negative space’ come up again:

“A lot of time, a single varietal wine shows some blanks, some negative spaces that we can fill in with blends.  Our goal, at the direction of our clients, is always to improve the wine without shifting away from the varietal’s intended profile.”

Again, if this sounds like a commercial for Estate Crush, I apologize, but it sort of is.  I was genuinely surprised at how reasonable the whole thing turns out to be.  , it all comes out the same:

Figure that the minimum Estate Crush contract is for a ton of fruit; using those aristocratic Old Vine Zinfandel grapes from those lauded Lodi Native vineyards, and factoring in bottles, corks, capsules, the in the purchase of neutral barrels, bottling costs plus bottling supplies and aging finishes  $6.50 to $6.75 per bottle pre-grape, and at $1400 for that precious Zin, a final cost of $8.55 per bottle out the door.

Mike McCay Lodi Native grapes

Mike McCay Lodi Native grapes

A bottle of Lodi Native Old Zinfandel made by one of the local luminaries like Mike McCay, Layne Montgomery or Ryan Sherman, will set you back around $30, but there is nothing in stone that says it would be any better.  Why?  Because Bob Colarossi has his own prize winning label (Stellina) and he makes a sensational Old Vin Zin.  He comes across as the sort of mentor in wine as he probably was to gymnasts in , and you get the impression that he wouldn’t produce a wine for you that he wasn’t willing to put his own name on.  Along with his wife and business partner Alison, he has created a unique métier for himself, and an extremely attractive outlet for start-up wineries trying to establish brands, wine lovers with a bucket list or rock stars with a lot of fans.

Which is why, as a wannabe, there’s no need to to walk on eggshells during your first vintage and why ‘Walking on Sunshine’s’ Vince de la Cruz thinks Bob Colarossi can walk on water, and why I’m happy to write about a who walks the walk by turning a whole lot negative spaces into a major positive.


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