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Tom Ligamari

Whitecliff Winery Goes Geothermal


WHILE HOUSING SUBDIVISIONS and office parks might be named for the geographic features they replace, Whitecliff Vineyard and Winery stares its namesake square in the face. Visitors to the Gardiner property can enjoy a bottle of Red Trail or Traminette and watch climbers scale the stark cliffs of the Shawangunk Ridge from the tasting room.

Michael Migliore got to know this area as a grad student in organic chemistry at SUNY New Paltz, just down the road. In 1975, he rented a portion of a 350-acre farm, raising dairy cattle and growing hay as he studied. Eventually, he bought 20 acres of the farm, and by 1979 he had planted a few varieties of grapes, gradually developing an interest in viticulture and winemaking while he worked as a chemical engineer for IBM. Over the next 10 years, he and his wife Yancey observed and learned, gradually developing 1- and 5-acre plots.

“We started with small, experimental plots of grapes to see what would grow best here,” recalls Michael, who currently serves as president of the Hudson Valley Wine and Grape Association. “We’re working on the edge of what’s possible—this is not cool-climate viticulture, this is cold-climate viticulture,” he says.

For more than a decade, all of Whitecliff’s wines (Chardonnay, Seyval Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Pinot Noir, Gamay and an international award-winning Reisling) were processed, bottled, aged and packaged inside a single building—essentially a garage—even while production increased from 450 cases in 1998 to 4,500 cases in 2010.

Production has now increased to 7,000 cases a year, but in a new building constructed in 2011—a geothermal facility unique to the Hudson Valley.

“We both love the land and we care very much about environmental sustainability. The idea that this is truly green is important.”

Temperature control is important both for the winemaking process and for wine storage. Temperature of the liquid must be kept stable—usually from 70 to 75F—for optimum fermentation, and a constant, stable environmental temperature of about 55F is considered mandatory for proper aging and storage. Historically, caves and deep, dug cellars were favored environments. Some California wineries, in fact, have gone so far as to actually bore into mountains to create engineered, man-made caves for their winemaking operations.

There’s a poetic appropriateness, Yancey says, to using modern geothermal technology in the traditional winemaking process. “Geothermal is so appropriate for a winery because you’re making an ‘above-ground cave,'” she notes. “We both love the land and we care very much about environmental sustainability. The idea that this is truly green is important.”

The geothermal system at Whitecliff includes radiant heating/cooling coils in the floor and around the fermentation tanks. A closed-loop heat pump circulates propylene glycol liquid through five, Slinky-like coils buried in the ground and extending more than 100 feet beyond the building (each would be 10 times that long if straightened). The ground acts as a heat exchanger, warming or cooling the liquid inside the piping to its constant subterranean temperature of around 54F; when the liquid returns to the building, the exchange process is reversed. Operation and temperature control are easily and instantly accomplished via computerized software.

Although the initial cost for design and installation of a geothermal system like the one at Whitecliff can be at least 30 percent higher than the cost of more conventional HVAC systems, geothermal costs only about a third as much to operate (most of the energy cost is just for running the pumps), and the initial investment can be recouped in seven years.

Comprehensive geothermal systems like Whitecliff’s are still relatively uncommon in winery operations nationwide, but the push is on. A voluntary LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating and certification system was established in 1998 by the U.S. Green Building Council as a measure of the “environmental friendliness” of a new building project. LEED-certified buildings are designed to reduce waste, conserve energy and water, be healthier and safer places in which to work, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and lower operating costs. Though not LEED-certified, Whitecliff’s facility certainly fits the bill. (So far, only one New York State winery includes a LEED-certified geothermal system—Red Tail Ridge Winery in the Finger Lakes region.)

Because of their design, geothermal systems are fairly easy to expand once the basic components are installed. With this in mind, “I overbuilt the system,” Michael explains. Half of the winery’s production area is currently being used for aging wines, so the next step will be to append a storage facility. “All I have to do is punch out the wall,” he says.

Hudson Valley Restaurant Week is back this April 8-21!