York Machine Works has a history rooted back to 1973 in St. Helena, CA. Nestled in the heart of California’s wine country, John York built a business machining and fabricating for the local wineries and vineyards. Alex and Michelle Mitchell purchased York Machine Works in 2010, uncorking a new varietal from a beloved brand.
Alex earned a Masters of Industrial Technologies at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo before taking a job at a local SLO broadband company. “I was the first employee in the new manufacturing division,” explains Alex. “We built self deploying satellite dishes that get Internet for high end RV or disaster response vehicles. I hired all the guys and set up the shop with a new Haas VF2. Everything was the way I wanted right down to the tooling.” When Alex made the decision to move back home he left a well- paying position for a bit of the unknown.
Alex and Michelle are St. Helena locals in every sense of the word. They grew up here, they went to school here, they fell in love here and now they’ve started a family and bought a business here. “I moved back home to marry my wife Michelle,” tells Alex Mitchell, owner of York Machine Works. “I came to work for John York in 2004 as a welder with the intension of buying the shop from him when he decided to retire. I’ve always had a love of fabrication and machining so having someone like John take me under his wing was a great opportunity. At the time, York Machine Works was an all manual shop with old cast iron monsters everywhere. John is a really smart guy and a true artist. He taught me a lot about machining, but he wanted out just a few years after I came on board.”
The recession hit York Machine Works pretty hard. A good portion of York’s business comes from repair and maintenance of winery equipment. The local wineries were running at a bare minimum and delaying normally scheduled maintenance work. “We took a big risk buying the business when we did,” explains Alex. “It was good in the sense that the business wasn’t worth much. With no work I got it for a song, but obviously no work is a bad thing.” One of the biggest assets of the shop was it came with a huge preexisting customer base. Sure, the industry wasn’t flourishing, but people drink wine in good and bad times so Alex was confident that the industry would come back. “Having our name known and respected in the industry was worth the most to me when it came time to buy John out,” continues Alex. “Drumming up new business while we waited out the lull was key to us still being here.”
John York focused most of his efforts on machining, but Alex, fresh with a new business loan took every job that came their way. He focused a lot of his efforts on fabrication. “John was old school, set in his ways and hated the fab work,” details Alex. “I literally didn’t turn down any job we could get. I like fabrication and there is a huge demand for that here in the Napa area. A lot of the wine makers have these one off custom projects. The fabrication jobs kept the lights on as the machining work slowly came back for us.” Growth expectations were realistic, but thanks to a revived economy and his aggressive pursuit of jobs, Alex has exceeded his projections. “There was a fair amount of consolidation because of the recession,” describes Alex. “Larger wineries acquired smaller ones not able to weather the storm. Now they are back in expansion mode and we are expanding with them.”
The last seven years has seen York Machine Works hire more employees, foster their fabrication department, and purchase their first CNC mill and CNC lathe. “I added our first CNC mill a few years ago,” explains Alex. “It was an old beat up Akira Seiki that was in desperate need of TLC. I got it along with a few other machines that were just sitting in a storage unit. Thankfully I did, because in a round about way that Akira Seiki led me to my new Romi GL240M lathe.” York Machine Works is your typical job shop, doing general machining. They do a ton of parts in stainless steel and food grade plastic to support the local wineries. “We don’t do a lot of volume here,” details Alex. “Along with job shop work we do have our own product line of winery specific widgets. John developed a lot of the products, but I have been adding more and making improvements to the already established designs.” Two products in particular inspired Alex to consider the purchase of a CNC lathe.
Two of our York Machine Works most popular products are Venturi bodies machined out of stainless. In certain times during the wine making process you need to add oxygen back into the wine. The Venturi is a passive way to do that without the need to introduce compressed oxygen into it. “Wineries do what is called a pump over,” explains Alex. “You just put our Venturi body in-line. Because it narrows, the fluid speeds up and creates a low-pressure area that brings in oxygen. Super easy and really efficient.” John York used to make these all on a manual machine, but they were pretty rough when judged by today’s machining standards. When Alex bought the business, he stopped doing them manually and hired a company in Napa to turn them for him. “They could pump them out cheaper and faster then we could do on the manual machine,” continues Alex. “They were a way nicer part. This got me thinking about adding a CNC lathe to the shop. Then I came up with a more high performance model called the “Super Venturi”. It is a pain in the butt to machine. It has a long taper on it and the shop I was using had a hard time controlling chatter. I had a large order of 100 come in from Rombauer Vineyards and the back of the napkin mathematics said It was enough to buy 1/3 of a new machine and bring it in-house.” Because of his relationship with Rick Smith at People Tech Machine Tools which is a machinery distributor in southern and northern California his search began and ended with Rick.
Rick Smith at People Tech Machine Tools has been Alex’s go to guy for maintenance and service since he first purchased the old Akira Seiki CNC mill. “The mill was in bad shape and I was going through it and needed some assistance,” tells Alex. “I looked up service for Akira Seiki and People Tech came up. I couldn’t be happier that I did.” Alex touts Rick as being a truly valuable resource and an asset in every sense of the word. Response time is quick and Alex never has to wait more than a day before Rick makes the healthy jaunt up from the South Bay. “Rick really knows his stuff,” continues Alex. “So when I began my search for a lathe he was my first and only call. I gave him a list of the criteria I needed and asked for a recommendation. People Tech is a Romi dealer, but I wasn’t familiar with the brand. After a little bit of research and trusting Rick that parts and service were no problem I pulled the trigger on a Romi GL240M.” The Romi was installed last spring, turning out parts nearly from day one.
As a small shop Alex didn’t need a giant machine tool, but after finding the base model he wanted he added a few more bells and whistles onto the already capable platform. “As a job shop it was important to me to have versatility and quick change overs,” details Alex. “So, I up sold myself on the need to have an automated tool setter to speed up the setup process. The Romi GL240M is a single turret machine with 12 tools. I did get the M version, which has live tooling. I haven’t set up any tooling for the milling yet but I wanted it for the expanded capabilities. I also purchased a bar feeder to give me the ability to expand my run times.” Alex had CNC programming experience from his previous job, but never programmed a lathe. He found the controls on the Romi well thought out and easy to use with a little practice. “The machine is great. It does everything I need it to do and more. It was a great investment for today and the future.”
Alex was quick to give credit to his wife Michelle as the reason York Machine Works has seen the success it has. “Michelle supported us financially all along the way,” tells Alex. “What a life saver she has been. Her good paying lab job made up for the weeks or months when I brought home nearly nothing. So it was a bold move to give up that security and have her come run the business.” An influx of work had Alex bogged down and he was in need of more people to help with running the shop, designing new products, and servicing customers. After the birth of their son Theo, priorities shifted and the concept of Michelle running the business made more sense. “It has allowed us to be together as a family,” describes Alex. “I get to see my family throughout the day and that is amazing. I can’t say enough about Michelle. The business is succeeding largely because of her.” She took Alex’s unorganized clutter and streamlined it into an efficient way of doing business. They now have clear and concise job sheets, and are way more productive because of it. York Machine Works is now able to do more without unnecessary expenses of greater expansion. Alex is free to work on new product design and implementation without the worry of paying vendors and collecting money.
Future expansion is aimed at growing their own product line and gaining recognition outside of Napa Valley. Until recently, the shop had never placed a single ad anywhere, but as more of their own products come on line Alex and Michelle need to get the word out. “It is great that word of mouth from satisfied customers has done so well for us since 1973,” tells Alex. “But as we continue to expand our in-house products I need to reach other wine areas outside of our own.” York Machine Works has a few new products almost ready to reach the market, all aimed at wineries and growing plants. “I’m working on an irrigation system for another local company that takes the drip emitter style water system to new levels,” explains Alex. “I made a plunging spike system for them and now we are implementing it to be more automated and on a larger scale for customers who want it for a million plants.” Alex has a desk full of design ideas that he and one of his buddies dream up. They have a side company doing R & D but to hear him talk of it you know it is just as much fun as it is work.
York Machine Works is in the final stages of testing before launching a replacement valve that could save older wineries thousands of dollars. Wineries are linked by a system of piping to connect and move wine from place to place. Turn a valve here and it diverts wine to there. It is a simple concept and essential to every winery. The older wineries utilize a must valve from the 50’s. It is a patented 1937 product from a company that is long out of business. “These old valves were ahead of their time, but now they are old and need to be upgraded,” explains Alex. “There are plenty of ball valves out there to replace them, but they are a different size and required heavy modification of the existing piping. So I reverse engineered a drop in stainless replacement that meets all the requirements of today.” Of-course he added a few extras for easy cleaning and servicing that the original was lacking.
Products like these are opening up new doors for Alex and Michelle. York Machine Works may have started as a small local business in California’s wine country, but they are gaining recognition everywhere because of new and innovative products that can be used anywhere people grow grapes and make wine.