Jerry Lohr Wants Research Revolution

California vintner asks enology and viticulture professionals to volunteer their skills

by Jim Gordon
Jerry Lohr
The American Society for Enology and Viticulture honored Jerry Lohr on Wednesday with a Merit Award for career service.
Monterey, Calif.—Like a preacher delivering a sermon and then passing the collection plate, California vintner Jerry Lohr yesterday exhorted several hundred colleagues to think collectively, act cooperatively and invest more in research for the American wine industry as a whole. Then he good-naturedly leaned on them to sign and turn in 3-by-5-inch cards specifying what they will do to help the cause, even ordering his sons, Lawrence and Steve Lohr, to stand guard at the door and collect the cards as people filed out after his speech.

Lohr had the lectern because the American Society for Enology and Viticulture honored him with its Merit Award for career service during its 62nd national conference in Monterey. The founder of J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines, based in San Jose, Calif., called for a “research revolution” similar to that accomplished by the Australian wine industry in recent decades, which would benefit all American vineyards and wineries and uncover solutions to impel American wine production and sales forward.

The tall, 74-year-old entrepreneur who was trained as a civil engineer, became a custom-home builder and created a wine company that now encompasses 3,000 acres of vines from Paso Robles to Monterey to Napa Valley and produces 1 million cases annually, urged the listening grapegrowers, winemakers, professors and students to communicate and collaborate more effectively.

“We need a national vision,” Lohr said. “We’re already on our way, but we need to ask where in all the country are the persons that can do what we need to do—and find the money for them to do it.”

Lohr stressed that even though California produces the great majority of American wine, the research revolution should encompass Washington, Oregon, New York, Virginia and all the states in between. “We need to break down this flyover mentality. My approach is that we always need to think about the United States.”

Per capita consumption stalled
“Getting wine into the American culture has been a long-term goal of mine,” Lohr continued. Noting that U.S. wine consumption averaged only about 3 gallons per capita when he founded his family winery, and that it still hasn’t broken that barrier. “We should be doing a lot better,” he said.

The development of wineries in all 50 states and the quality of wine being made there are assets. These should be capitalized on to further spread appreciation and consumption of wine, he argued.

“Even places like Montana have a wine culture,” Lohr said. “Virginia has wines that are every bit as good as we have in California, and if you don’t believe that you are fooling yourself.”

Lohr used the example of Monterey County strawberry growers to show what research can do. He said strawberries are now the county’s largest farm crop, and that research at the University of California, Davis, brought the innovations that enabled strawberry farmers to succeed.

Displaying a newspaper clipping from the Financial Times, Lohr quoted an article about India’s quick progress from being a non-exporter of cotton to its current ranking of No. 2 behind the U.S. in cotton exports. Research on growing cotton gave Indian farmers the boost, he said.

Lohr referenced genetically modified grapevines a few times in his remarks, not calling outright for their further development but asking what the benefits might be if the American wine industry got behind GMOs. He asked the audience to imagine what would happen if a competing wine-producing country did aggressively go into GMOs, and the cost savings and potentially higher quality grapes that might result.

“Does anyone think if China could develop a GMO vine that resists powdery mildew that they wouldn’t use it?” He referred to research by vine breeder Andy Walker at UC Davis that is yielding new grapevine material bred with native vines from the Southwest, which is very promising for disease resistance. While not using the GMO methods that are standard in corn or soybean production, Walker’s work has been accelerated by new knowledge about genetics.

Lohr as leader
Lohr has long been a leader in organizing, funding, and facilitating research for the wine industry. He has served as director and chair of the Wine Institute and chair of the Monterey Winegrowers Council. He founded the National Grape and Wine Initiative, which works with industry, academia and public policy makers to improve grapegrowing and winemaking.

He spoke about Wine Vision, a group he helped found some years ago that set several goals, including fostering a wine culture in America, sustainability of winegrowing and globalization. The sustainability issue has made much progress, he noted, with formation of many county- and state-wide programs including the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, and certification of thousands of acres of vines. Wine Vision accomplished nothing on globalization, he said, while the cultural transition continues.

Lohr urged ASEV members to move the research revolution forward by contributing in several ways:
•    Providing vision
•    Personnel search
•    Facilities planning
•    Funding
•    Collaboration
•    Communication

He spoke of the new research and teaching winery at Davis as a great example of how all these types of contributions came together to create something extremely worthwhile and promising for grape and wine producers. Lohr urged more work of this kind as the key to the research revolution. He added that facilities and funding alone are not enough, however. Research personnel must be trained, recruited and supported.

Lohr spoke in an informal way: coaxing, giving examples, calling out the names of a couple of dozen people in the room and elsewhere who have been important players in past and current research, funding and production.

One of those called out was Bob Gallo of 70-million-case E. & J. Gallo Winery in Modesto, Calif. Gallo stood and spoke briefly near the end of Lohr’s talk, giving what seemed like the benediction for this gathering of the faithful: “I think we should all thank the lord for the leadership that Jerry Lohr is showing today.” The audience responded with a standing ovation.

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