Wine and Viticulture

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The Art and Artistry of Winemaking and Building

By Michelle Swanitz, co-authored by Alison Swanitz

The evolution of Cal Poly’s JUSTIN and J. LOHR Center for Wine and Viticulture is much akin to the process that takes place when making a remarkable vintage of wine. There are a series of steps that every winemaker or builder follows, but within each of those steps, there is passion, artistry and skill necessary to produce an amazing bottle of wine or a stunning building edifice.

American wine legend Jerry Lohr, who was originally a civil
engineer and builder by trade, inspects the site excavation
with Dean Andrew Thulin.

Winemaking begins with harvest. During late summer and early fall, in the rolling hills of vineyards, winemakers and vineyard managers must carefully examine and analyze the grapes before harvesting. Are the grapes at optimal maturity? What is the sugar content? Are the grapes rich in color, juicy and full-flavored, easily crushed but not shriveled? 

In building design and construction, the equivalent process is called programming — the gathering of ideas, the wants and needs that will go into the building. Without programming, there would be no building.

At Cal Poly the programming phase for the Center for Wine and Viticulture began with a dream over 10 years ago. The dream was 
kept alive and nurtured by many until it had reached full maturity. The faculty, staff, students and industry partners worked with the design team to carefully and thoughtfully evaluate what Cal Poly’s Wine and Viticulture Department would need in the building to support student success. 

In 2010, during this harvest of ideas, American Wine Legend award winner Jerry Lohr brought his support, incredible knowledge and dedication to Cal Poly. Lohr led the efforts of the Cal Poly Wine and Viticulture Department’s fundraising team, and his amazing track record of philanthropic support of higher education helped to harvest many new donors to support the vision of the JUSTIN and J. LOHR Center for Wine and Viticulture. 

After the many long days and nights of harvest are complete, winemakers turn their attention to crush. Once the grapes are sorted and de-stemmed, they are crushed into must, which is the resulting grape juice containing the seeds, solids and skins of the grapes. In construction, this phase is called design development — the process of taking all the ideas from the programming phase
and “crushing” them together to create a rough diagram showing the essential elements and functions of a building. 

A construction worker installs the slot drain linear
floor drain system prior to the concrete for the building
slab being poured.

During this phase, Lohr brought his years of invaluable expertise in the wine and construction industries to the project by bringing in vonRaesfeld and Associates. A Mustang himself with a degree in architecture from Cal Poly, Stephen vonRaesfeld was excited to bring his expertise to his alma mater. vonRaesfeld was the director of facility development for a large international wine company before starting his own architecture firm. In his capacity as director of facility development, he has been involved in the design and construction of wineries throughout California’s major wine regions as well as those in Argentina, Chile, France and Italy. To complete the team working on Cal Poly’s new winery facility, vonRaesfeld brought in TLCD Architecture for its experience working within the California State University system on educational projects. 

With all the right talent in place, the project evolved from a one-building concept to the current master plan design for the Cal Poly Fermentation Science Institute, which includes the Winery Building, the E. & J. Gallo Winery & Family Building, and the future location for the Brewing and  Distilling Building. 

With the fast-paced whirlwind of crush completed, time becomes measured and controlled, and the fermentation process begins. 

During fermentation, the winemaker becomes the artist. Rather than select paint colors for the canvas, winemakers chose what type of yeast to add and how long to allow the fermentation process to go so that aroma and skin extractions can help develop the foundation of the winemaker’s eventual masterpiece. All these decisions are the creative road map that defines the outcome of the final product.

In the design and construction industry, fermentation’s equivalent are construction documents. During this time, the materials and finishes are chosen, and plans for how they will go together are drawn up. Each iteration of the construction documents brings the building closer to its perfect form and function, just as each fermentation brings the wine closer to the winemaker’s vision. 

During the construction documents phase for the JUSTIN and J. LOHR Center for Wine and Viticulture, Cal Poly brought JW Design and Construction to the team to help with constructability of the winery. The owner, Jerry Williams, and his team — Morgan Malone, Dave Harbeson and Kari Running — have been an invaluable resource with their combined 30-plus years in building local wineries. 

The front entry to the Lohr Family Winery.

Constructing a winery on the Cal Poly campus is unique because the university typically designs buildings to last 50 or more years as opposed to private industry that builds periodic renovations and improvements into the business plan. Keeping longevity in mind, the JW Design and Construction team skillfully helped 
Cal Poly and the design team navigate many important decisions and evaluate the life-cycle costs, knowing that the least expensive initial cost isn’t always the best option for a long-term solution. One example of this was Cal Poly’s decision to go with the Membrane BioReactor (MBR) system for cleaning the winery process water.

The project team chose an MBR unit to “future proof” the college’s investment, knowing that water quality regulations will only get more onerous. 

“Several recent industry articles confirm that we made a wise choice, as new regulations already being put in place could cost small wineries anywhere from $17,000 to $40,000 a year in permitting, monitoring and reporting,” said Benoît Lecat, head of the Wine and Viticulture Department. “Our wine and viticulture and bioresource and agricultural engineering students will learn from the latest technology that serves  both current and future water quality regulations and teaches best practices for our environment.”

The winemaker’s craft continues to develop the wine through the process of aging and clarification. During clarification, tannins, proteins and dead yeast are removed from the wine, and the wine is transferred into stainless steel tanks or oak barrels. The winemaker can use filtration to remove large solids from the wine, or the winemaker can use the fining process in which substances are added to clarify the wine. 

Building projects go through a similar clarification process as outside agencies review the drawings for code compliance. During this process, building officials ask questions and mark up the drawings for clarifications and corrections. 

Installation of the new fermentation tanks and
stainless steel catwalk system.

The artistry of winemaking nears completion with finishing and bottling. The winemaking team puts the finishing touches on the wine and gets it ready for the public to enjoy. That stage in building design is equivalent to the construction phase, which we are in now with the JUSTIN and J. LOHR Center for Wine and Viticulture.  

The buildings are taking shape and coming to life. The Winery Building should near completion in late November 2020, and the E. & J. Gallo Winery & Family Building should be finished in spring 2021. 

Until that time, you can watch the building’s progress on our live web cam at:

Just as one eagerly anticipates uncorking and enjoying an artful vintage, the college looks forward to enjoying the fruits of the team’s hard work and dedication when the buildings open to Cal Poly students, faculty and staff. 

“These buildings will provide the facilities needed for student success, offer a classic Learn by Doing approach to education, and make a lasting impact on the wine industry for generations to come,” said Andy Thulin, dean of the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences. “We look forward to opening the buildings to the public and toasting the occasion by drinking our very own Cal Poly wines in the new JUSTIN and J. LOHR Center for Wine and Viticulture.”


Visit Vines to Wines Fall 2020 to read more stories.

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