Dunne on Wine: Science-based approach at J. Lohr Vineyards

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 3D

For nearly four years now, the intent of this column has been to highlight a wine that in addition to representing quality and value tells a story. That story could be about the person who made the wine, the region that yielded it, the grape that produced it, the trend it represents, or so forth.

Some weeks, it's been difficult to tell one of these stories through a single wine. Some wineries simply make a whole bunch of wines that stand apart and have something compelling to say. This is one of those weeks.

With J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines, where do you start? Actually, that's pretty easy. Without Jerome "Jerry" Lohr, there simply wouldn't be a J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines, the blanket name for a company that includes nearly 3,700 acres of California vineyards, seven tiers of wines, two wineries and several dozen releases each vintage.

Lohr grew up on a South Dakota farm, where his family didn't grow grapes but where he developed an abiding appreciation for smart stewardship of the land. After graduating from South Dakota State University in 1958, however, he drifted west and into other academic pursuits. He was working on his doctorate in civil engineering at Stanford University when he joined the Air Force in 1961. The Air Force made him a research scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field in Santa Clara County.

When he returned to civilian life three years later, he stuck around San Jose to open a land-development and custom-home-building business. Before long, California's reviving commercial wine trade caught his attention and he returned to farming. He planted his first vineyard in the Arroyo Seco region of Monterey County in 1971. He was something of a pioneer in the region, a role he was to replicate in 1987 at Paso Robles.

Since then, both regions, among others, have shown that the state's "wine country" extends far beyond Napa Valley.

Today, Lohr is recognized by his peers for his science-based approach to farming, his commitment to education, his loyal employees, his generosity, his leadership and his gumption. He's chaired numerous regional and state groups involved in public-policy, marketing and research efforts for the wine trade.

His donations and design tips for the new research and teaching winery at UC Davis are represented in the fermentation room and the sensory laboratory that bear the names J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines.

OK, so what does that mean for the wine consumer whose interest in the name "Lohr" doesn't go much beyond a bottle of cabernet sauvignon or chardonnay? Well, he doesn't make wine to please every palate, but every palate is likely to find a pleasing Lohr wine. His lineup includes a frisky rarity, valdiguie, and even a series of nonalcoholic wines, under the brand Ariel.

There's no Lohr house style, though his director of winemaking, Jeff Meier, who has been with the company since 1984, said their overarching stylistic goal is wines of concentration and balance.

In addition to varietal character, they hope their wines reflect their painstaking research to match particular grape varieties with specific growing sites.

And Meier is particularly keen on "tannin management," a precision-oriented approach to fermentation aimed at intensifying a wine's bull's-eye flavors without leaving it astringent and bitter. A wine should be as approachable on the day it is released as it is after 20 years of aging, he said.

He's so enthusiastic about tannin management that he's involved in continuing experiments on the subject with researchers at UC Davis.

Lohr's and Meier's stylistic aspiration is met by such current releases as the rich and complex, yet bright and vibrant J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines Highlands Bench 2010 Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir, the sweetly fruity and supple J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines Hilltop Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon, and the focused and elegant J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines 2009 Carol's Vineyard Napa Valley St. Helena Cabernet Sauvignon. All three, while forward with fruit and solid in structure, possess a pliancy that makes them drinkable right now.

For the past few vintages, my favorite wine out of the Lohr stable has been its chardonnay, lilting with fresh fruit, spunky with spice, crisp with acid. The current version, the J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines October Night 2010 Arroyo Seco Chardonnay, is a more complex and more richly textured take than earlier interpretations of the varietal.

In heft and vigor, it strikes an amiable balance between leaner versions out of Burgundy and fatter versions from California. While slightly sweet and plumply built, its refreshing acidity will seduce wine consumers who aren't particularly crazy about the traditionally big California style.

Aside from notes of vanilla, smoke and toast extracted from the French oak barrels in which the wine was fermented and aged, the wine's aroma is notably floral, which Meier attributes to the clone of chardonnay that accounts for most of the vineyard from which the grapes were drawn.

That would be Dijon Clone 809, also known as the Musque Clone, responsible for yielding such distinctive chardonnays that it's surprising more wineries don't take advantage of it.

But then, most wineries don't have Jerry Lohr out in the vineyard in his farmer duds pondering soil profiles, canopy management, irrigation practices, temperature variations and the like.

He's a farmer again, no longer a rocket scientist, but there may not be much difference in the two when it comes to the intricate study of the materials at hand.

"October Night," incidentally, is a name the Lohrs originally trademarked for a pinot blanc they were making from their Arroyo Seco vineyards in the mid-1990s. They no longer make pinot blanc, but they liked the name so much they transferred it to their Arroyo Seco chardonnay. The term was inspired by the night harvests the Lohrs customarily do in October at Arroyo Seco.

J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines October Night 2010 Arroyo Seco Chardonnay

By the numbers: 14.3 percent alcohol, 1,173 cases, $25.

Context: Winery officials recommend that the chardonnay be paired with grilled wild salmon with heirloom tomatoes, lobster bisque, eggs Benedict, grilled chicken and pumpkin ravioli. Recipes for the salmon and lobster dishes can be found at the winery's website, www.jlohr.com.

Availability: October Night is available at Nugget Markets. J. Lohr wines also can be purchased through its website (www.jlohr.com), though the 2010 October Night is sold out at the winery.

More information: J. Lohr has two tasting rooms. The J. Lohr San Jose Wine Center, 1000 Lenzen Ave., San Jose, is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. The J. Lohr Paso Robles Wine Center, 6169 Airport Road, Paso Robles, is open 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. daily.

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