Realm Estate: Year One
We closed on the Hartwell property on December 30, 2015, and a new chapter began for Realm Cellars. After thirteen years of making wine, we had a home. A winery and a vineyard -- an Estate! It kind of blew our minds. Benoit had worked on this property for over ten years, so it wasn’t exactly new to him. What was new to him - and to us – was the concept of owning the place. We went from renters to owners overnight, with all the responsibility that entails. When the reservoir got clogged with leaves from a heavy rain, Andy and the team went and shoveled it out. When the front gate wouldn’t open, Eden figured out how to get it fixed. When a falling branch knocked out the electricity, Juan called PG&E. There was no landlord, no property manager. And to be honest, there’d been some delayed maintenance.
This place wasn’t exactly what you’d call turn-key; it was more of a fixer-upper. Which makes sense for Realm. We’ve always thrived on challenge. On finding something with lots of potential and then working like crazy to bring out the best in it.
On December 31st we were already working out which vineyard blocks should be replanted. It was our first priority, the thing we knew would take the longest to fix and yield the greatest return on quality. A lot of the blocks were failing. There was disease pressure and issues with the vines’ root structure. At least we weren’t starting from scratch. Benoit knew what and where the problems were. As viticulturist for the property since 2008, he’d walked the vineyard for years, had spent his own money to bring in irrigation consultants and even a pruner from France. After Realm took ownership, Scott and Benoit walked the property every Sunday for months. We brought in more experts - soil scientists, geologists, hydrologists, water treatment specialists. We mapped soil types and searched for water. We studied, probed and consulted. No stone was left unturned in thinking about how to maximize this site’s potential.
I had ideas going in, but you need creative people - a collaboration - not just a single mind. We’re going to extract the best of this place. It was a diamond in the rough and we’re going to carve it and shape it the best way possible.
After several months and a dozen renditions, our master plan started to crystallize. The blocks up the hill behind the winery were removed, as was the house that sat close to the road. We didn’t intend to lose that house, but it became obvious that the land it was sitting on is more valuable planted, ideal for grapes. Same with the driveway; we’ll move it to the south to make room for south-facing vineyard parcels. Eventually, we’ll replant the entire property. The vineyard will consist of ~20 one-acre blocks. Completely different row orientation, trellising, rootstock, clones. Every decision driven by the best science at our disposal.
As we made plans for the vineyard, we also did a mini “facelift” on the winery, landscaping, installing new floors, painting and sprucing up the office and meeting spaces. In May, we moved our wines from Boswell to the Estate, a task that boggled the mind since the existing winery wasn’t built to store wine beyond what the Estate could produce. We turned a storage barn into a barrel chai and went from seven to thirty small tanks to make sure we could keep everything separate. In late summer harvest came along, and we learned to work together in a new space, with new systems and equipment. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a thousand times better than Boswell. It was ours.
Getting out of Boswell was a big thing. We wanted our own place and we were excited. But there was the pressure of the unknown. It’s more complicated than going to the winery and doing your work. You own the land, and you have to deal with that. Everyone’s plate got fuller. Everyone on the team took on new responsibilities. Everyone is stretched. But that’s how we do it at Realm.”
In April 2017, we’ll start work on the winery, beginning with digging new caves. We need more room for wine work, and the caves are the natural place to expand. It’ll be a construction zone here, but we’re used to that kind of chaos. We’ll work with the existing winery. Tearing it down, though tempting, wouldn’t be practical. But we need more room for production and barrel storage.
It’s not so much about expanding in terms of quantity, but about accommodating the new model of Realm Cellars, which is now two-fold. We’re an Estate vineyard and winery, but we also work with eleven other Napa Valley vineyards. We want to keep as many lots separate as possible.
With the new winery, Benoit can do that, and treat each one accordingly. He’s got a warm room and a cold room. He’s got hot glycol and cold glycol. The barrels will be stacked only two high to make topping and climate control more precise. He’ll have everything at his disposal. We want to preserve each vineyard’s differences and nuances all the way through to bottling, but you need space to do that.
Many of the investments we’re making are not necessarily sexy, some won’t even be visible to outsiders, but they will be real, and they will make a difference. New tanks, catwalks, pumps and an entirely new infrastructure that integrates the vineyard, winery, sales, inventory and even accounting functions. We spent a lot of time in Bordeaux, and we looked at everything, even equipment that originated in the medical and dairy industries, to arrive at the best solutions for us. Again, no stone left unturned. The equipment, technology and systems are unlike anything seen here before.
It won’t be crazy, not froufrou like some places you see. It will be like Realm - practical, functional, natural and organic. It will be one of a kind; there’s nothing like it in Napa Valley. We’re not copying anyone. What we’re building doesn’t exist yet.
We also have big plans for hospitality. Hartwell never had a tasting room. There was never a back of the house and front of the house. And Realm is going to keep it that way. The design will flow. We’ll have tasting spaces, both inside and outside, but they’ll never be more than a few steps away from production. Guests will see hoses being moved around and barrels being topped. Things will be in motion; there’ll be a buzz. That’s going to be the hallmark of our hospitality experience. You’re not going to sit in a chair in an isolated room and sip wine. You’ll see people come and go; the winemaker might walk by and pat you on the shoulder. Who knows? We want the experience to be immersive. We want people to feel as if they’re visiting Realm’s home.
February 2, 2016. The day of our Spring 2016 release. It was not a good day, to be honest. The wine sold out in three hours, but a lot of our long-time customers weren’t happy. We had never been a wait-listed, high demand brand that sells out in a few hours; it caught us all by surprise. We knew there was momentum, but we didn’t anticipate how quickly people would be on the computer to order wine, and we didn’t allow enough time for the customers who would normally place an order. Talk about growing pains. We felt terrible. We did a video to apologize. And we changed our allocation approach.
With Gratitude to our Growers
In the winter of 2014 Realm held its first annual Grower Dinner. It was the first time we were able to formally recognize and thank the growers who supply us with grapes. Some of these growers had been with us since the very beginning. They’d stuck with us through some pretty tough times. Without them, there would be no Realm.
Starting to Get Noticed
Success in the wine business is often incremental, and the milestones can be as varied as convincing a sought-after grower to sell you wine grapes to getting a placement on a Michelin three star restaurant’s wine list. In February 2014 Realm’s showing at the Napa Valley Vintners’ annual Premiere Napa Valley gave us reason to believe we were on to something.
Developing a Vision
As the harvest of 2013 got underway, there was shared excitement at the new vision for Realm, but also a realization that there was a long way to go. The bar only got higher.