State Approval!!!

Miocene Winery has been granted the first approval ever issued by the California Department of Public Health to use recycled winery wastewater for rough washing of the food contact surfaces of tanks, barrels, and equipment.

The approval marks the end of a frustrating period where we first hauled to EBMUD, and more recently irrigated with the laboratory grade water our treatment system produces.

A previous post discusses the technical aspects of the treatment system. There were dark days when we wondered if the wastewater recycling necessary to allow the winery to grow to profitable size would EVER be approved. CDPH had been very difficult when the Jackson family wanted to do a similar recycling program several years ago, and the system was never built.

Perhaps beginners luck was with us, but we got a building permit and built the system on the strength of an engineering feasibility study before we realized that approval to actually use it was by no means given. Maybe it was even necessary to build it first, because we were able to present hard data validating the system.

We have a state of the art system in place and approved that opens the floodgates to recycling the vast reservoir of water the wine industry pours down the drain every year.

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Miocene Winery Wastewater Recycling

A little winery atop a hill in American Canyon is taking a big step forward in developing the technology to re-use wastewater in the winemaking process.

Not long ago, when the California population was lower and water seemed free and easy, it took ten gallons of water to make a gallon of wine. This crazy ratio has decreased by half as simple and common sense conservation measures were implemented by the industry under the pressures of increasing population and decreasing rainfall.

The easy water conservation measures have been taken, but it still takes several gallons of water to make a gallon of wine, and those gallons are either trucked away or are dumped down the drain. The high Carbon load of winery waste places an unsustainable burden on local wastewater plants.

Many wineries have implemented simple digestion facilities where a pond or tanks are used to store the wastewater so microbes  can convert the high Carbon content to biomass. The wastewater, with a much reduced Carbon load, is then dumped down the drain where it is less a burden on wastewater treatment plants.

This works well when there is plenty of water available, but Miocene, the first winery in American Canyon, faced a more serious problem. No water. Even as the return of the rains currently has reservoirs bursting at the seams, a shortage of water has become a structural problem in California. Ageing infrastructure groans beneath the weight of increasing population. Water is not just a problem for the Miocene Winery, it is a problem for all of California.

An obvious solution is to re-use the winery wastewater. This might seem easy, after all, the wastewater comes from washing out containers of a beverage we consume with gusto! No nasty there. The problem is the Carbon. Human waste is very low in Carbon.We are very sophisticated and efficient digesters ourselves! When the wastewater sits outside the carefully controlled environments of tanks, barrels and bottles; it goes bad. Just like a bottle of wine left open will go bad. You can’t be washing your tanks with bad wine.

Enter RODI Systems, an innovative company from New Mexico headed by Stan Lueck. RODI has broad experience across the spectrum of industrial wastewater treatment. Petroleum, dye factories, military, desalinization. A recent project in Colorado treats wastewater from an enormous fracking operation to a level where it has been given a permit to discharge directly into the Colorado River.

img_1420Stan in his New Mexico facility demonstrating the tough ceramic membranes that are the first stage in filtering the Miocene wastewater. Bacteria laden water is drawn against stacks of these plates by vacuum. They are currently working so well that zero residual Carbon is  getting through them, and the filtrate has exceptional clarity.

RODI had done a winery previously, but they only needed wastewater processed so it   could be used for irrigation. Miocene needed wastewater treated to a level you can drink. There were some problems and adjustments for the new application, but the system is now running smoothly and  exceeding its design specifications.


The RODI was manufactured in New Mexico and shipped on two trucks to a slab waiting at the Miocene site. The tank is on the right. It is partitioned so that the ceramic membranes do their work in an environment with a higher concentration of the blobs of bacteria we call “floc”. Floc looks like this under the microscope:


The yeasts that make up the bulk of the biology in winery wash water are the little circles. They are mostly dead. A special mix of bacteria for winery waste is provided by Tracy Finnegan of Environmental Leverage, in North Aurora, Illinois. This bacteria consumes the high Carbon content of the wastewater and creates a matrix for the formation of globs of floc. When drawn up against the ceramic membranes, the floc provides a second layer  of filtration, and the rapid flow through the accumulated floc turbocharges the bacterial activity.


After passing the ceramic microfilters in the tank, the water comes over to the hi tech part of the RODI in the shipping container. A Unitronics controller oversees a marvel of automatic functions. The pH and dissolved Oxygen in the bioreactor is monitored and automatically adjusted. The ceramic membranes are automatically backwashed every ten minutes. Nutrients are automatically added.

The RODI is designed for remote operation. We routinely “check in” and start, stop, or adjust parameters from wherever we are.

The long tubes on the left are the Reverse Osmisis filters. Reverse osmosis is just a fancy way of saying you force the water through a membrane having holes the size of atoms with a really strong pump. It works because water is a tiny molecule. It is physically impossible for anything but water and a few small ions to get through. The stuff that can’t fit through the filter is rejected, and we use that for irrigation.


This is the finished product. I have drunk a beaker like this. It tastes like the distilled water we use in the lab.

Far sighted officials at the City of American Canyon, particularly Public Works Director Jason Holley, deserve a lot of credit for taking a chance approving the cutting edge technology. Engineer Eddie Livingston was instrumental in gaining the approval. Eddie is working with a small town in the desert using a RODI for converting municipal wastewater to drinking water. Knowing Stan and Eddie, I would drink it!

Gordon Lehman ( is the Miocene project manager and designer.

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Terrane Terroir and What’s Up with this Purple Dirt Anyway?

As far as we can tell dinosaurs did not drink wine. Yet while the dinosaurs were leaving their bones in the mud farther east in Utah, the dirt that would become Hidden Ridge was being washed into the sea on to a narrow continental shelf and cascading in underwater landslides into the trench where the ocean floor was sliding under an island arc something like the island arcs in Southeast Asia today.
These offshore sediments gradually accumulated over a period of about a hundred million years into a linear terrane that underlies most of the coast ranges of California. This terrane is suitably called the Franciscan after the good Fathers on donkeys that first brought vineyards and winemaking to the state.
Terrane, terroir, but not terra firma. Certain chemical processes when sediments are compressed and melted into rock form magnetic crystals that align with the North Pole when they form. From these we can tell that Hidden Ridge was once in an entirely different appellation, probably Central Coast near the current position of Paso Robles.
Slippage like that along the San Andreas Fault today has been going on for a long, long time and the combination of ocean floor sliding under and northward slippage caused some unusual intrusions into the Franciscan. These intrusions were much more like the ocean floor, rich in Iron, Manganese, and Magnesium. Hydrothermal activity, pretty much like the Geysers today, leached Iron from the intrusions and injected it into the soil above leaving us the dark red to purple Iron rich soils of Hidden Ridge.
Iron makes blood red and it is part of the coloration of grape skins. Wine color comes from the skins. The unfailing color and phenolics of Hidden Ridge wine derive from this soil.
Valley soils have been washed down from many different rocks in the surrounding mountains. From the Santa Rosa side the Mayacamas Mountains begin with a wide band of relatively recent (we’re still talking millions of years) volcanic rocks called the Sonoma Volcanics. As one climbs out of Rincon Valley on the Calistoga road the Sonoma Volcanics are expressed as light colored tephra or tuffs that can easily be mistaken for limestone. This is volcanic ash, like Mt Saint Helens on steroids. Above these after the first bridge on the St Helena Road one finds buff colored ten million year old sandstones laid down when San Francisco Bay extended way up here. Only near the top of the Mayacamas Mountains where all the younger stuff has washed off does one find the Franciscan and Hidden Ridge.
In the valley bottom soils the red Iron has been diluted to brown and lighter buff colors from less Iron rich rock washed down after the dinosaurs left town.
Does purple dirt make an exceptional mountain cabernet? You bet it does. Here’s to the red blooded dinosaurs!

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Wine, Volcanoes, and the Dioxides

Making wine teaches important lessons about the wee beastie soup we live in, call it the dim sum. It also holds lessons about Carbon and Sulfur. Carbon and Sulfur were instrumental in the evolution of life on this planet, and likely by no coincidence oxides of Carbon and Sulfur are the second and third most prolific exhalations of volcanoes, after water.


Most folks understand the fundamental role of Carbon in the chemistry of life, and many that one of the more plausible scenarios for the terrestrial evolution of life involves reducing Sulfur in the anaerobic environment of oceanic hydrothermal vents . Those so inclined may draw a volcanic metaphor for life.

NOAA hydrothermal vent

For billions of years life existed only in the oceans as a microbial soup I like to call the dim sum. One can also think of it as wine. Lest we underestimate the industry of our wee predecessors, they are currently found in our deepest holes drilled into the crust and in the highest reaches of the atmosphere. Our human ancestors discovered that the fungi we now call yeasts quickly turned mashed grains into beer and bread, and collections of fruit into wine.

The dioxide of Carbon became the basis of a balanced economy of photosynthesis and respiration we consider ourselves the culmination of. The dioxide of Sulfur, however, is the evil twin, the anti-life.

While many beasties, including yeasts retain the anaerobic Sulfur reducing metabolic pathway for tough times, the usual resultant, Hydrogen sulfide is extremely toxic to aerobic creatures and is an unpleasant component in wine. Research on selecting yeast strains to eliminate Hydrogen sulfide has demonstrated a previously unknown reducing pathway that produces free Sulfur.

The antimicrobial use of Sulfur in winemaking is at least as old as the Romans and Sulfur was our primary antibiotic as recently as World War I.

When I hear the Carbon wags expostulating about  volcanic Carbon dioxide causing mass extinctions, I yearn to bring them down to earth with a whiff of my stock sulfite solution.

Skull Crossbones

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Why Miocene?

The Miocene is the name of a geological epoch derived from Greek words that generally mean “less recent”. Most geology is “less recent” than our human time frames but “less recent” is a good thing when it comes to big wines. Around Calistoga and the Napa Valley there was a lot of volcanism in the late Miocene and much of the volcanic rock visible in the hills above our tasting room is of Miocene age.

Epoch, if you go by spelling, is one of those words coined by someone with no sense for the mouth feel of words. Fortunately better palettes have prevailed and it is commonly pronounced “epic”. Epic pretty much summarizes the wines we will be making, so when you say “Miocene Wine” consider the mouth feel. Think “less recent”, and call it the Miocene Epic.

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