Growing & Winemaking


Winemaker Interview: A Conversation with Jeff Meier

July 2016
by Laurie Daniel
Jeff Meier

Winemakers are often peripatetic types, changing jobs every few years. Not Jeff Meier. The director of winemaking at J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines has been with the company (which has wineries in San Jose, Paso Robles and Greenfield, Calif., and farms 3,700 acres of vineyards) for more than three decades.

Meier fell in love with wine country as a child. He grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area town of Danville, and he would accompany his parents on wine-tasting trips to Napa and Sonoma. He was struck by the beauty of the vineyards.

Still, when he started college at the University of California, Davis, his goal was to become a veterinarian. He soon discovered, however, that his intended career wasn’t a good fit. He took an introduction to winemaking class, and something clicked. It hadn’t dawned on him when he was visiting wine country with his parents that people could work in the wine industry. He switched majors during his sophomore year and earned his degree in viticulture and enology in 1983.

Meier worked his first harvest at J. Lohr in 1984. Over the years he rose through the ranks and was named winemaker in 1995. He became executive vice president in 2009 and added president and chief operating officer to his titles in 2014. J. Lohr has added a number of high-end offerings during Meier’s tenure, including its Vineyard Series and Cuvée Series.

Q: You’ve used a lot of filtration methods during your years at J. Lohr. What practices did you follow in the past?

Jeff Meier: When I started at J. Lohr back in 1984, we were doing a lot of clarification and filtration. We used a centrifuge for juice and wine lees clarification. All finished wines were cold stabilized after fermentation and were Velo pressure-leaf filtered (nominally 0.45 micron) back to barrels or tanks for additional aging. We were not unusual in our approach at the time, but as a neophyte winery worker I could see the effects on red wine density. Additionally, the wines, once removed from barrels, were reblended and Velo pressure-leaf filtered (nominally 0.45 micron) a second time pre-bottling, followed by a pad plate-and-frame filter and 0.45-micron Millipore nominal and absolute sterile filter during bottling. Our wines were squeaky clean and microbiologically stable.

We also had an ultrafilter from Millipore with a 10,000 molecular weight cutoff that we used on our whites from Greenfield, in the Arroyo Seco AVA, for heat stabilization. Prior to using this ultrafilter, we had to add as much as 10 pounds of bentonite per thousand gallons to heat-stabilize our Sauvignon Blanc from the area due in part to the grape harvesting and handling in the early 1980s, but also as a result of how Sauvignon Blanc was grown at that time. Now we press at the vineyard, so we don’t need the ultrafilter and we can use a lot less bentonite.

Q: You eventually decided that cross-flow filtration was the way to go. Why is that your preferred filtration method?

Meier: We had a lot of experience with cross-flow membranes—in our case, with ultrafiltration and reverse-osmosis filtration for our dealcoholized Ariel wine brand—and began to see more and more application for these same cross-flow filters for polish filtration in the late 1980s. Although we were content with our pressure-leaf filtration, when I took over the winemaking reins in late 1995 and began to critically look at our wines pre- and post-filtration, I noticed a drop-off in density of some of our red wines—particularly Cabernet Sauvignon.

The first thing that I did was to stop cold stabilizing and filtering our wines post-fermentation. We began to assemble our Bordeaux varietal blends in the January after vintage and put the racked blends to barrel for aging. When it was time to remove the wines from barrel, the wines were less prone to precipitation, and we began to look at ways to be gentler on the finished blends—even exploring bottling without membranes. This technique required very clean racked wines and no microbial load. We did have one wine that saw an acetobacter bloom in the bottle, but we generally had positive results. It was a bit risky, but it was a good experiment in an extreme opposite approach to filtration, compared to my early years at J. Lohr.

We also began to take a serious look at cross flow for polish filtration. We trialed all of the major supplier cross flows (0.2 micron) over the period of a year and did blind tastings of bottled wines produced without filtration or membranes versus wines that were cross flowed with or without membranes. I thought that I would prefer the wines that were unfiltered or at least without membrane sterile filtration, but found quite the opposite. The wines that were cross flowed and membrane filtered were “cleaner,” purer in all characteristics and complex with no decline in wine density—a real eye-opener for me! Ultimately, we decided on a Pall cross flow and have been using it on all of the wines we produce—whites and reds in all of our J. Lohr tiers, from $10 per bottle to $65 per bottle.

Q: You also use a membrane filter at bottling. Why?

Meier: We have been users of 0.45-micron membrane filtration at bottling since I started at J. Lohr. We use pre-filters (0.45 micron nominal—originally Millipore, now 3M/CUNO) and final filters (0.45-micron absolute—now 3M/CUNO) for all of our bottling. I had a period of time in the early 2000s that we experimented with looser pore size membranes such as 0.65 to 1.0 micron and even no sterile filtration on some of our J. Lohr Vineyard Series wines. After three years of trials and numerous tastings where we couldn’t discern a difference in blind triangle tests, we opted to return to our sterile filtration at bottling. These filters and their 0.45-micron membrane pore sizes are small enough to reject yeast and bacteria and ensure the winemaking staff a good night’s sleep without the worries of a Brettanomyces bloom, refermentation in bottle or other microbial problems.

Q: What do you do with a problem wine—say, one with Brettanomyces?

Meier: The best defense against problem wines in the winery is a good offense. In J. Lohr’s case, that means being proactive in our qua lity control—monitoring and maintaining adequate SO2 levels, having excellent barrel hygiene, tank and transfer line sanitation and monitoring for microbial issues through monthly tasting as well as monitoring volatile acidity and 4-ethylphenol (4-EP) and 4-ethylguaiacol (4-EG) levels.

About two years ago, we added a more proactive monitoring of Dekkera/Brettanomyces growth by incorporating the Invisible Sentinel PCR monitoring system—sort of like a pregnancy test kit—where we can get an approximate count of actual cell numbers of these 4-EP- and 4-EG-producing microorganisms. Whereas our prior tracking of Brett infection was measurement of the Brett byproduct odor compounds indicative of the microorganisms’ presence (kind of like shutting the barn doors after the cows are already out of the barn), we now “see” cell counts present before the production of byproduct off-odors and can take steps to minimize or eliminate cell growth and the 4-EP and 4-EG byproduct.

The first step is to check and ensure that we have adequate SO2 levels in the Brett-positive cell count wine. Second step, if we feel it is warranted, is to rack the wine from barrels and sterile cross-flow filter back to Gamajet-washed, ozone-treated barrels. This usually drops the cell count back to zero, and the wine is monitored a little more closely through the duration of its aging time.

Q: Despite having vineyards in Arroyo Seco, J. Lohr didn’t start producing significant amounts of Pinot Noir until a few years ago. When you got into Pinot production, what did you do about fermentation tanks?

Meier: Bringing Pinot Noir into the varietal fold at J. Lohr required us to create a winery within our Paso Robles winery to receive, sort and ferment in ways very different from Cabernet Sauvignon and the other Bordeaux varietals that we grow. Our vineyards were set up in small blocks of various Pinot Noir clone and rootstock combinations, creating small tonnages of fruit, which required smaller tank sizes capable of handling 3- to 6-ton lots, up to 12 tons. In some cases with less than 3 tons, we ferment in small 1-ton MacroBins.

Additionally, we needed to be able to have cold-soak capabilities and then the ability to warm up the tanks for yeast inoculation. Finally, with a delicate variety like Pinot Noir we needed punchdown capabilities for fine tuning extraction during cold soak and fermentation. So we built a special area within our Paso Robles winery where we can receive fruit delivered in half-ton MacroBins, destem with a Delta E2 destemmer, sort individual berries (initially with the Vaucher-Beguet sorting system and now the Pellenc sorter) and crush or not crush individual berries into MacroBins. The bins are then unloaded into the tops of our open-top fermentors—either 6 tons or 12 tons—where cold soak can begin.

The beauty of creating this small-lot Pinot Noir winery is that it has allowed us to utilize it for our Vineyard Series or Cuvée Series fruit, such as our Hilltop Cabernet Sauvignon. Breaking our best vineyard blocks into smaller areas of uniform fruit quality and running it through the sorting and small fermentors has increased the quality of the individual lots selected and given us many more blending options.

A resident of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Laurie Daniel has been a journalist for more than 35 years. She has been writing about wine for publications for more than 21 years and has been a Wines & Vines contributor since 2006.

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