June 1, 2003
A Glass of Green
For Oregon vintners Sokol Blosser, a sustainable cellar makes pinot noir taste better.
For hundreds if not thousands of years, vintners have stored barrels underground in caves and cellars so their precious wine can age in ideally moderate temperatures. Here in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, however, home to some of the most ac-claimed pinot noir this side of Burgundy, earthquakes make burrowing deep underground dangerous. Nevertheless, when it came time for Sokol Blosser winery to build a new cellar, owner Susan Sokol Blosser and head wine maker Russ Rosner decided that another tilt-up concrete building with massive heating-and-cooling systems was contrary to the spirit of their enterprise.
Working with Portland’s SERA Architects, Sokol Blosser spearheaded the area’s first sustainable wine cellar. Comprising three chambers—each holding French oak barrels—the cellar is nestled into a gently rolling hillside, laid in earth on the length of its exterior to keep a low profile in the picturesque landscape. Foot-thick walls of reinforced concrete help maintain the narrow temperature range (about 50 to 60 degrees) necessary for the notoriously vulnerable pinot noir grape. “In the old building it gets into the forties or even the thirties during the winter, and I’m fighting to keep it under eighty in the summer,” Rosner says.
SERA also installed a natural ventilation system made of three 25-foot tubes that protrude to the exterior of the berm. The system saves the winery 43 percent on its energy bills by eliminating air-conditioning. And the benefits extend beyond utility bills: A/C dries the air, thereby evaporating precious vino and increasing its alcohol content—“not the kind of wine I want,” Rosner quips.
Sokol Blosser’s cellar is more expensive than a concrete building would have been, but as with wine, you get what you pay for. “It’s a 200-year building,” says SERA Architects’ Logan Cravens. “It may not last as long as a natural cave, but it’s pretty close.” (By comparison, the average American building lasts 35 years.) Because the winery is a family-owned business, handing it down to the next generation is more important here than at a corporate winery. Plus, Rosner says, the cellar is a symbol of all-around sustainable values. Building green is no different from, say, minimizing pesticides sprayed onto the grapevines. “There are other ways to achieve the conditions we have in here,” Rosner says, inspecting one of his prized barrels, “but this is best for the environment.” And when you depend on the land for your living, the environment is what it’s all about.