Growing & Winemaking


Grapegrower Interview: Jerry Lohr

June 2011
by Laurie Daniel
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Jerry Lohr.
Although Jerry Lohr grew up on a farm in South Dakota, when he settled in California he worked as a developer and homebuilder before making the move back into farming. This time it was winegrapes.

In the early 1970s, he and then-business partner Bernie Turgeon were among the early players in the Arroyo Seco region of Monterey County. It was something of a risk, because commercial viticulture in the county was only about 10 years old. The partners opened the Turgeon & Lohr Winery in San Jose in 1974.

Lohr bought out his partner about a decade later and went on to purchase land in Paso Robles, where he planted grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, which had proved to be difficult in Arroyo Seco. He also owns a vineyard in the Napa Valley. J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines currently has 3,700 acres of vineyard in California.

Lohr, who has a master’s degree in civil engineering from Stanford University, was a founder of Wine Vision and the National Grape and Wine Initiative. He is a former director of the Wine Institute, four-time president of the Monterey County Vintners and Growers’ Association and former chairman of the Paso Robles Vintners and Growers Association. Lohr received a lifetime achievement award from the California State Fair in 2007, and in 2008 he was named Wine Industry Person of the Year by the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance. Lohr is this year’s Merit Award honoree at the American Society for Enology and Viticulture’s national conference.

Wines & Vines: Arroyo Seco was a largely unproven viticultural area when you planted grapes there in the early 1970s. Why did you decide to plant grapes there, and what were the results?

Jerry Lohr: We traveled to Napa, we traveled to Sonoma, we traveled to Lodi. As I looked at the various areas, it seemed Napa had quite a bit of variation in soils. It was pretty warm. Sonoma was kind of scattered all around. Lodi was a huge area but seemed to be primarily taken with Tokay grapes. Because we live in Saratoga, 50 miles south of San Francisco, the most accessible area was Monterey or the Salinas Valley. So as I began to kind of narrow it down, it looked to me as if right in this Greenfield area there was the combination of this Region 2 climate that Winkler and Amerine had conceived and the gravelly, well-drained soils.

In Greenfield, I liked the layout. I could see that wells were there. They were growing lettuce in spring and summer and peppers in the fall, and peppers need good drainage. There were quite a bit of root crops at that time—carrots and sugar beets—and root crops need gravelly soil. So it was all a validation of the kind of soils that we would like. I wasn’t there in the afternoons in the summer, when the wind is blowing so much, but I really liked the soil.

We had our first very small crop in 1975. By that time I knew that it was pretty windy in the summer, and I finally realized why people have the huge eucalyptus windbreaks. In 1977, we had our first good crop. By that time we had learned that the area was actually cooler than it theoretically might be. Where Chardonnay and Riesling would ripen in the area, and Pinot Noir would ripen, it was difficult to properly ripen Cabernet. Unripe fruit in that area is just not good.

On the 280 acres that we bought, I planted 90 acres of Cabernet, 30 acres of Merlot (because I wanted to make a Bordeaux blend), 27.5 acres of Chardonnay, 27.5 acres of Riesling, and then we planted small quantities of other things. We planted a total of 11 varieties. We had financial partners with us, and we told them that we’re going to graft over from those that did poorest to those that did best.

W&V: Which grape varieties didn’t work out?

Lohr: The first one that really didn’t work was Merlot, because it didn’t set well in the wind. Merlot did poorest and Pinot Blanc did best. So on the windiest side we grafted over the Merlot to Pinot Blanc. The next one we saw wasn’t working well was Cabernet, so we started grafting. We actually spent about three years grafting because we had so much of that Cabernet. We grafted it to Chardonnay, primarily, and to some Pinot Blanc. We grafted in ’78, ’79, ’80, and we finished some in ’81. We grafted, eventually, 70-plus percent of that original vineyard and wound up with four varieties: Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Blanc and Napa Gamay (now called Valdiguié). We stayed with the Pinot Noir for several years, but it always had a rubber boot character, and it just didn’t do well at all. We had 7.5 acres, and we tried experiments like barrel fermenting and small-lot fermenting and thinning and opening up the vine by leafing and so forth—practices that didn’t become common for the next 10 or 15 years. We finally decided it was a clonal problem, maybe in the wind. We didn’t even know what clone it was. Forty years ago, we weren’t as sensitized to clones. Because it was a relatively weak vine, we had it in some of our richest soil. So we thought maybe that was a problem. We now have Chardonnay in that soil, and the Chardonnay does much better.

W&V: What did you learn about vineyard practices such as spacing and trellising from Arroyo Seco?

Lohr: We started out with sprawl, and it was harder to get the sprays in, the mildewcides that we had to use because of the cool, damp mornings in Monterey. One of the things that really helped was using vertical shoot positioning. Consequently, we were able to cut down on the number of sprays that we used. Especially for Chardonnay, which is quite subject to mildew, that was really good. When we went from sprawl to vertical shoot positioning, there was no sense in having 10-foot center-to-center rows. We cut that to 8 feet. For the spacing between vines, we typically decreased that. I first planted at 10 feet by 7 feet. We’ve now gone to 8 feet by 6 feet or, in some cases, 8 feet by 5 feet. On these strong soils, we sometimes use less-vigorous rootstock. If you have too-vigorous rootstocks, then you have too-vigorous vines in almost any spacing. We always work toward having dappled light.

The buzz about de-alcoholized wine

In the mid-1980s, Jerry Lohr and winemaker Barry Gnekow developed the first de-alcoholized wines using reverse osmosis. The wines are marketed under the Ariel brand, and production stands at about 80,000 cases per year. It started out as a matter of happenstance, Lohr says. "We had been using Millipore filters to try to take out the extreme grassiness in Sauvignon Blanc," he says. Someone suggested to Gnekow "that if we put in a different filter, we could actually take the alcohol out."

The idea of a de-alcoholized wine appealed to Lohr. "My Carol (Lohr's late wife) got a headache from a tablespoon of wine. She was part of that 8% to 14% that I've heard just get a headache from wine," Lohr says. "Many of our neighbors had health situations and couldn't drink wine, so we thought, 'Maybe here's where we could do something that's good for society.'"

They experimented with the process until they came up with the right method. "We make the wine, then we use the reverse osmosis to take out alcohol and water," he says. "And then we add back unfermented grape juice, because the wine is balanced to begin with, but it comes out quite unbalanced, because the alcohol acts as a buffer for the acidity. We then replace the buffering effect of the alcohol with a small quantity of that grape juice. That actually works very nicely. Some of the folks that would like to drink wine, but have chosen not to for whatever reason, don't mind the slight sweetness."
W&V: In the mid-1980s, you purchased land in Paso Robles. What brought you there, and what have the results been?

Lohr: What brought us there was learning that we needed to be in a warmer, less-windy climate. We had a fortunate thing happen to us in 1981. We had a call from a fellow who was part of the Hyatt hotel chain (to make wine for the hotels). Barry Gnekow, the winemaker, and I tasted over 500 samples in ’81 and ’82 of wines from all over California. We saw that the flavors we liked came from Paso Robles. So even though it was farther from home, I went down there and got the soil maps and talked to Realtors and began looking into the area. I was down there enough times that I saw that it would get very hot in the daytime and saw how cool it got at night. Eventually I acquired 640 acres in six parcels.

W&V: What did you plant there?

Lohr: Largely Cabernet and what I call “Bordeaux blenders.” We took the heavier soils and planted those to Merlot. We have well over 100 acres of Petit Verdot down there. We planted a little Petite Sirah as a coloring variety. We planted Malbec, which hasn’t done all that well—oh, and we planted a little Syrah. We’ve planted almost continuously since 1987. We have more than 2,500 acres. We look for new clones, like Cabernet Franc: We planted some, and it only did so-so. We found there were potentially better clones of Cabernet Franc. We’re liking 214 and 327 better than previous clones of Cabernet Franc. The same way with the Petit Verdot: Now we like clone 400.

Paso Robles has been much more user-friendly. The tweaking has been more in irrigation practices or in pruning or in balancing the vines. I’m very much a believer in going back to cane pruning for Cabernet in Paso, for instance, because we spread the fruit out more.

W&V: You mentioned your earlier experience with Pinot Noir, but it’s only been fairly recently that you introduced two Pinots from Arroyo Seco—Falcon’s Perch and Fog’s Reach. Considering your location in an area that has proved to be good for Pinot, why were you so late to the party?

Lohr: We had made the decision in 1989 to really focus on Cabernet and Chardonnay. Pinot is still marginal in that it’s a low-yielding, relatively high-input crop. You need to handle it carefully. You need to have almost entirely different equipment in the winery. We were barely able to keep up with the demand for Chardonnay and Cabernet.

At the same time, we watched the other Pinot clones, like the Dijon clones. There was a lot of experimentation. When clones (INRA) 113, 114 and 115 came out, I wasn’t too excited about those in our area. So I waited for another generation to come out and tried to get grapes to make wine in small quantities. We have kind of settled on a combination now of Pommard 4, 115, 667 and 777. We have those on two different rootstocks, so in the same block we will have six or eight combinations. We harvest them separately and ferment them separately.

We built a small-lot winery within our winery in Paso Robles, with open-top 6- and 12-ton fermentors. It’s all gravity. We have an entirely separate sorting system. We hand-harvest. We thought that, before we do it, we want to do everything right.

A resident of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Laurie Daniel has been a journalist for more than 25 years. She has been writing about wine for publications for nearly 15 years and has been a Wines & Vines contributor since 2006.


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