Core Values Yield Marketplace Misperceptions with Paso Robles Wines
The foundation for the great wine empire J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines in California started with the values of a young man who grew up on a farm tucked away in South Dakota. That boy, Jerry Lohr, would not only go on to receive his Master’s degree in civil engineering from Stanford University, but become one of the pioneers of grape growing and winemaking in the Central Coast of California by planting vines in Monterey in 1972 with his own hands (J. Lohr Winery was founded in 1974) and then investing in Bordeaux varieties in Paso Robles in 1986. This was before the different pockets of the Central Coast became well-known, such as Monterey for its Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, or Paso Robles for Cabernet Sauvignon that over-delivered for price. Today J. Lohr Estates “Seven Oaks” Cabernet Sauvignon from Paso Robles is still one of the greatest values on the market that delivers a richly balanced wine that is oftentimes below $15 in retail stores from the same family that owns the vineyards, makes the wine and bottles it.
Jerry Lohr started a land development and custom home-building business in California during the mid 1960’s but environmental concerns in the ‘70’s that led to strict regulations limiting the over-expansion of building ended up bringing him back to his deep farming roots. His passion for wine only grew once he started to delve into learning about viticulture, wine making and the untapped potential of the Central Coast. Before he knew it, he was placing his hands in the dirt, as he had done many times before, but this time as a future wine producer – one that would transform the perception of wine regions outside of Napa and Sonoma.
Today, Jerry’s three children (Steve, Lawrence and Cynthia) help him run the company with Jerry himself still being very involved at the age of 83. On a sunny day last November, in some of their beautiful Paso Robles hilltop vineyards, Cynthia welcomed me and some other writers for an outside tasting and she noted about her father’s current role, “He is still evangelizing Paso Robles and bringing attention to long-term water solutions and so much more.” When it comes to the idea of Lohr expanding into smaller bottlings of select vineyards that illustrate how well Paso Robles grows Rhône varieties, as well as lesser-known Bordeaux blending partners such as Petit Verdot, their accessible and affordable “Seven Oaks” wines will still be a major priority for them.
Cynthia explained, “My father is a South Dakota farmer turned Stanford-educated engineer so everything he does is very modest, very down to earth, so we love sharing our wine with folks and we are known in the industry for being very accessible, very knowledgeable, very down to earth. We will never change any of that but we want to show what these guys [their winemakers and winegrowers] can do across the entire spectrum given their ability, longevity in the business and knowledge that has been gained from our commitment to experimentation.” She explained that when her father first started, he wanted to offer delicious wine at a price that anyone back home in South Dakota or beyond could buy, and it eventually led to an operation that today produces around 1.7 million cases of wine. Their “Seven Oaks” Cabernet alone, that is made from their own vineyards, makes up to 1 million cases. Lohr owns 2,147 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards in Paso Robles with a total of 2,600 acres of vineyards just in that one region.
But as time has gone on, Cynthia and her brothers, as well as their team, represented by Steve Peck, director of winemaking, wanted to showcase some of the special sites among their enormous acreage. Some of their “Vineyard” and “Gesture” series illustrate the various terroirs in Paso Robles and a deeper sense of varietal characteristics such as their Grenache Blanc, Petit Verdot or their “Hilltop” Cabernet Sauvignon that is sourced from three vineyards that bring a balance of concentration and freshness. But their “Seven Oaks” Cabernet Sauvignon still gets a lot of love as “every drop goes to barrel for a full year and about 20% of those barrels are new every year.”
Rightful Spot as a Luxury Cabernet Producer
Cynthia and her family have been working on a couple of new special projects with their team: “Pure Paso” and their Signature Cabernet Sauvignon. The “Pure Paso” is the Lohr family response to the U.S.’s newfound passion for fruit-forward red blends, although they have been making red blends since the beginning in Paso Robles.
But they realize that not only do they need to release a new wine that brings focus to the idea that a place like Paso Robles is ideal for making such a lush, red blend style, it can do it as a dry wine. Many of the other popular red blends are technically off-dry and have a significant amount of residual sugar. The inaugural 2013 Signature Cabernet Sauvignon was released in 2017 on Jerry Lohr’s 80th birthday. Cynthia stated, “When we did release this with great fanfare on my father’s 80th birthday, it was a sign that we had arrived and we have earned our rightful spot as a luxury Cabernet producer given all of our years in Paso Robles.”
But Cynthia also said that since her father was such a “humble guy with a modest background” he wondered if anyone would want to pay for a luxury quality wine that retailed around $100. He is still rooted in his upbringing that one tries to make things as affordable to the public as possible, yet the reality is that some in the wine world do not take J. Lohr seriously enough because of the price and they have even been shut out of some wine competitions due to the wine not making the minimum price tag of $100. So, they decided to take one of their favorite vineyards and make less than 5,000 bottles to show the world the incredible sense of place of Paso Robles’ top vineyards.
It is interesting to think back to Jerry Lohr’s childhood back on the farm in South Dakota and speculate if when he looked up to the sky and fantasized about all the things he wanted to be, or all the experiences he wanted to have as an adult, if he could have ever imagined what he would accomplish – establishing some of the most exciting wine regions in the U.S. Luckily for the wine world, he never lost his salt-of-the-earth outlook and those values are deeply woven within each J. Lohr wine.
Everyday Drinking Wine (less than $15)
2017 J. Lohr Estates, Cabernet Sauvignon, “Seven Oaks”, Paso Robles, California ($13): Blend of 82% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Petite Sirah, 5% Merlot, 4% Petit Verdot and 1% Syrah. Juicy black cherry and blueberry preserve flavors with hints of espresso and dark chocolate that was balanced by fresh acidity.
Special Occasion Wine (from $15 to $50)
2017 J. Lohr, Proprietary Red Wine, “Pure Paso”, Paso Robles, California ($27): Blend of 70.5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 26.5% Petite Sirah, 2% Merlot, .5% Petit Verdot and .5% Malbec. Ripe black fruit, cinnamon spice and crushed rocks all wrapped up in a delicious approachability.
2017 J. Lohr, Cabernet Sauvignon, “Hilltop”, Paso Robles, California ($35): Blend of 95% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Petit Verdot and 1% Malbec. The tannins are well-structured and the sustained finish has hints of toasted exotic spice.
Fantasy Wine (over $50)
2016 J. Lohr, Cabernet Sauvignon, “Signature”, Paso Robles, California ($100): Blend of 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Cabernet Franc, 6% Saint Macaire, 4% Petit Verdot and 4% Malbec. Layers of complexity with violets, sweet tobacco, smoldering earth and a fierce minerality that had a plush mid-palate with cassis flavors and finely sculpted tannins that frame this wine beautifully with an expressively elegant finish.