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Saturday, 26 May 2012 16:28

Champions of California Wine

California winemakers have ridden the wine wave of the past 30 years to achieve a degree of visibility and renown within the industry and beyond. As the number of commercial bricks and mortar California wineries has grown from about 850 in 1998 to over 3000 in 2012, winemakers have taken the center stage, much like football quarterbacks. Whether they were born into a winemaking family, or became a winemaker through sheer will, or even by chance, winemakers have earned their title through hard work and a devotion to the grape. The job requires a strong sense of self-confidence along with an ability to make quick decisions and take risks.

There are countless paths to becoming a winemaker. Some go to college from winemaking families, as they want to continue their heritage. Others have a love of wine and decide to be winemakers, sometimes after having started careers in other fields. Many have a creative bent and are looking for an appropriate outlet. Whatever the motivation, a successful winemaker must have scientific aptitude coupled with strong intuitive and sensory abilities.

 Mondavi 320px-UC Davis Mondavi CenterWine industry's legacy at UC Davis includes the Mondavi Arts Cent

Winemaker Education and Training

California winemakers have usually completed a four-year degree program, such as the ones at the University of California at Davis; California State University, Fresno; and California Polytechnic State University. The UC Davis and Fresno programs, for instance, graduate 20-25 students annually with a Bachelor of Science degree in viticulture and enology. A handful of students, who usually have an undergraduate science degree, receive a Masters degree in viticulture and enology each year. The curriculums are rigorous with courses in viticulture, pests and diseases, plant physiology, enology, microbiology, fining and others. The new Cal-Polytechnic program is also similar, but includes wine business courses in the curriculum.

College provides the technical information about the process of winemaking, but experience is the great teacher. After graduation, future winemakers may start out in the winery lab or as an assistant winemaker. If they are fortunate, they will have a mentor, allowing the art of winemaking to be passed down from generation to generation, from expert to novice.

Harvest – the Crucible of Winemaking

Winemakers love the challenge of harvest. It is the time of year when their knowledge and actions impact an entire vintage of wine. They usually work seven days a week for two to three months, as they need to be in constant communication with their growers and cellar staff. Harvest is a time of uncertainty and dealing with the unknown, whether it is equipment malfunction or heat spikes in the weather that turns the process into a frantic race to get the grapes off the vines. Adrenalin, as well as mental passion and skill, help winemakers cope with the daily dance of harvest.

The decision of when to pick is a winemaker's responsibility. Judging at what point the grapes will produce the most flavorful and balanced wine is critical. Winemakers walk the vine-yards; they sample the fruit and rely on both their sensory instincts and lab analyses to determine ripeness. They also need to be practical regarding the logistical constraints of harvest, as to how many tons of grapes can be picked in a day, how many tanks are available and how much their cellar crew can handle.

During the last 20 years, the emphasis in California winemaking has shifted to the vineyards. A winemaker's depth of knowledge regarding the vineyards that produce the fruit for his or her wines is perhaps the most important aspect of the job. Whether working for a large winery that contracts with multiple growers or on a small vineyard estate, the winemaker needs to have enough experience and awareness to make decisions about the ripeness, flavors, acidity and condition of the grapes. Each vintage is different, and winemakers need to use their training and intuitive skills to work with every season. A winemaker's relationship with growers or vineyard managers is usually one of close cooperation and communication. Many are long-term relationships built on trust and a shared vision of how to achieve certain parameters for making the finest wine possible from a given vineyard site.

Tasting and Blending – the Artistic Aspect of Winemaking

Tasting is an important facet of winemaking, from the beginning when the juice is in the fermenter to the final blend before bottling. Winemakers learn the technical aspects of tasting at school. However, it is through experience where they gain the ability to affect the taste of their wines through a myriad of daily winemaking decisions. These choices range from determining types of yeast to managing fermentation temperatures and times. Some winemakers taste alone. Oftentimes, there is a winemaking team that tastes together, and it is important to develop a common vocabulary so that everyone agrees on the basic tastes – astringent, bitter and sweet – as well as more complex descriptors.

Blending is another tool in the artistic palette of a winemaker. Each vineyard lot is usually kept separate, and yeast, fermentation and oak treatments can vary, depending on the winemaker's intention. Often a winemaker will have 20-30 lots of a wine, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, that come from different vineyards with various vine maturity, aged in different types of oak, or differ in color from light to opaque with varying degrees of alcohol. It is up to the winemaker to decide how to blend this array of wines to create the final product that will be bottled.

The Business Side of Winemaking

Winemakers are also responsible for budgets, purchasing winemaking equipment, managing inventory, and many other managerial responsibilities depending on the size of the winery. More and more, winemakers spend time traveling to different cities, meeting with media and trade to help promote and market their wines. These Renaissance men and women are leaders and innovators in the California wine industry. Their endeavors have been central in helping California wines enjoy a reputation for high quality and, often, for greatness.

Special thanks to the following experts for providing interviews for this article: MaryAnn Graf, consultant, Vinquiry; Fred Peterson, owner and winegrower, Peterson Winery; and Karl Wente, vice president viticulture and winemaking, Wente Vineyards.


(Wine Institute sources contributed to this article.)


Editor's note: Links to the websites of nearly all of California's wineries, as well as links to thousands of nearby lodging and dining options, can be found at Taste California Travel's Resource Directory.


Napa and Sonoma may get all the press, and the Gold Country may have all of that rugged history, but the wine country of California’s Central Valley has its story too. Rightly famous for its rich soils and temperate climate, the Central Valley can produce wines of character that, when compared to some of those other regions, are a great value. You may not be familiar with some of these California wine regions, but they're definitely worth investigating.


Yolo County

Known for its warm days and mild Delta breezes, the wine country of Yolo County yields unforgettable wines of great character and diversity. Here you’ll find outstanding Syrah, Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Tempranillo and Cabernet Souvignon, but also lesser-grown varietals such as Viognier, Malbec, Primitivo, and Albarino, plus Sparkling and Port. You’re sure to find something memorable, and affordable, to suit your taste.

bogle port weekend CORKS SMALL

Virtually all of Yolo County's some two-dozen wineries are family owned and operated—including major producer Bogle Vineyards in the Clarksburg AVA—making for a more intimate experience for visitors. In the little town of Winters you can sample wines at the tasting rooms of Berryessa Gap and Turkovich Family Wines (also home to the Winters Cheese Company, which offers samples, as well). In Clarksburg, the Old Sugar Mill is a unique, historic venue, housing six tasting rooms representing eight wineries all under one roof!

Yolo County is also home to the U.C. Davis Viticulture and Enology department, as well as the Robert Mondavi Institute for Food and Wine Science

From Clarksburg to Davis, Winters to verdant Capay Valley and Dunnigan Hills, you’ll also enjoy gorgeous scenery, great dining opportunities, and comfortable, welcoming places to stay. For more information about Yolo County wineries and other attractions, visit www.yolocvb.org.


Suisun Valley

Suisun Wooden Valley Winery I 31n SMALLThree generations of the Lanza family have made Suisun wine at Wooden Valley Winery. Photo by Jo Diaz

Suisun Valley is rustic wine country, nestled in the unspoiled Solano County farmland between San Francisco and Sacramento. The Suisun Valley appellation was established in 1982, and is nestled between two coastal mountain ranges, southeast of Napa Valley. In this diverse agricultural region are approximately 10 wineries, whose vineyards grow 23 different wine grape varieties. They are best known for their Petite Sirah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

If you fancy Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Rhone varietals, you must visit Ledgewood Creek, a winery named after the creek that meanders along the northern border of this estate. For lesser known varietals—such as a Malvasia Bianca made in a late harvest style—visit Blacksmith Cellars. And for a rugged, natural experience try Winterhawk Winery, which has placed owl houses and hawk boxes strategically throughout the vineyard, beckoning a wide variety of birds including Red-Tailed Hawks, Swainson’s Hawks, Sparrow Hawks, and Northern Harriers.

Besides the wineries, visitors will encounter many farm stands, selling fruits and vegetables, dried fruits, nuts and freshly produced olive oils, from family farms that have been handed down for generations. There are also regular, seasonal events that are fun and laid-back. For more information about Suisun Valley wineries, visit www.suisunvalley.com.



Though Lodi has produced wine for well over a hundred years, quality has soared in recent years. Growers have made commitment to the best viticultural practices and they've planted many new varieties to complement the Zinfandel which has always done well here. Located directly east of San Francisco at the edge of the Sacramento River Delta, the Lodi appellation (which has seven sub-appellations) is noted for its classic Mediterranean climate and its distinctive sandy soils. Today you can choose from nearly 80 wineries that call Lodi home, an abundance that’s impossible to bypass.

Lodi is the self-proclaimed Zinfandel Capital of the World, producing more than 40 percent of California’s premium Zinfandel. Many of the region’s most distinctive wines come from the thousands of acres of “old vines”, some dating back to the 1880s. Styles range from medium to full-bodied with intense red and black fruit flavors of cherries, raspberries, and blackberries.

Lodi is predominately a red wine producer with approximately 66 percent of the acreage dedicated to red varieties. For many years it was California’s best kept secret, enhancing the fruit in many of the state’s most popular premium varietal wines. Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Chardonnay account for the lion’s share of the acreage; however with more 60 varieties in commercial production Lodi offers a vast portfolio of exciting wines.

No visit would be complete without a stop at the Lodi Wine & Visitor Center. Here guests can taste from more than 200 Lodi wines and marvel at the hands-on demonstration vineyard.

For more information about Lodi wines, visit www.lodiwine.com.



In the heart of the Central Valley, and a gateway to Yosemite National Park, Fresno is a surprisingly good destination for wine tasting in rambling Madera County. Nearly 20 wineries are open to visitors here, with vintners who are passionate about making the best wines possible.

Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, and Chardonnay are the leaders here, but visitors will also find excellent Tempranillo, Albarino, Sangiovese, and Barbera, plus delightful late harvest Zinfandel and luscious ports. Quality is paramount for these largely boutique wineries. For example, Engelmann Cellars focuses on creating hand-crafted reds and blends. Third-generation Ficklin Vineyards specializes in ports, including their lineup of flavored “Passport” wines. Nonini Winery, a fourth-generation family operation established in 1936, has 15 varieties of premium wines and offers a tour of the winery starting with the 1941 Garolla grape crusher from Italy and ends with the finished product resting in redwood tanks/oak barrels.

Two venues give visitors a chance to try several wines at once. Vino & Friends is a downtown Fresno wine store with a changing tasting menu. Also, be sure to stop by Appellation: California Wine Tasting & Visitor Center, which pours products from family owned wineries or vineyards of the Central Valley. The Center also offers wine education classes.

For more information about Fresno wineries and other activities in and around town, visit www.playfresno.org.


Editor's note: Planning a visit to any of the areas mentioned in this article? You'll find links to hundreds of lodging and dining options in Taste California Travel's Resource Directory.

Friday, 20 April 2012 13:21

Grapegrowers Honor Kautz Family

by Dan Clarke


Only one award was made to the Grower of the Year, but several people received it.John and Gail Kautz SMALL Admire pix of salmonJohn and Gail show visitor a picture of trophy salmon from a recent vacation.

In January the California Association of Winegrape Growers, otherwise known as CAWG, initiated this award for an individual, family or company representing “an outstanding example of excellence in viticulture and management, and is recognized by others for innovation and leadership within the industry.” The John Kautz Family of Lodi were the collective honorees.

John and Gail Kautz are Chairman and Vice-Chairman of Kautz Family Vineyards. All four of their children are active in the family business. Son Stephen is President of Ironstone Vineyards. His brother, Kurt, holds the title of Chief Financial Officer of John Kautz Farms. Jack, another brother, works in property management for the company. The boys' sister, Joan Kautz, is Vice President for International Operations of Kautz Family Vineyards. Theirs is a family of substantial achievement, but one that fits the “down to earth” expression--their titles seem more for defining roles than for impressing people.

John Kautz moved to Lodi in 1941 when his parents purchased a 38-acre farm out of bankruptcy for $13,000. “It was all run down,” John recalled when interviewed in the spring of 2012. “We built a milk barn and started selling.” Leadership traits showed early. Like most farm kids, John was closely involved with his family's work. There were chores, but he found time to serve as president of the Future Farmers chapter at Lodi High School. He was also active in scouting and before he graduated in 1948, he had attained the rank of Eagle Scout. “After leaving school I went right into California Young Farmers and eventually became their president in 1956,” John said. In 1952 John's father had died, leaving him the responsibility of taking over the original farm and an additional 40-acres the family had acquired.

Gail Kramer grew up in Oakland, but her family owned cattle land in Calaveras County. She became an elementary school teacher after graduating from Stockton's College of Pacific (now University of the Pacific). Gail and John married in 1958. While rearing four children she was involved in Parents Club and 4-H and later took ever more active roles in civic and political life.

The pair kept their focus on farming. Gail mentioned in passing that other young couples they knew enjoyed taking short trips to San Francisco or maybe Carmel. She and John didn't—unless it was related to business. “We were having fun, though,” she explained. “As we got involved in more organizations, we did a lot, traveled a lot.” Time on the road in the early days may not have taken John to resort areas, but the savvy businessman realized that buying equipment in Lodi and in nearby Rio Vista was expensive. When large farming operations in the southern San Joaquin Valley made new purchases that meant their old equipment could be had at bargain prices when John visited Bakersfield.

Their hard work and increasing civic involvement didn't escape notice. In 1965 John was named National Outstanding Young Farmer by the United States Junior Chamber (the Jaycees), an award of which he is very proud. Four years later he was named Top Farm Manager U.S.A. by the Ford Foundation. As success--and recognition of that success--grew, so did John and Gail. “We started taking a trip to another part of the world every year or two,” John said. “And we traveled with other couples from other parts of the country. (We were) opening up our vision to the world and to agriculture in the world.”

Having had success farming tomatoes, peppers, beans and other row crops, Kautz Farms expanded into wine grapes in 1968. John's leadership was soon evidenced in that world, too, as he wrote the first check to start the California Association of Winegrape Growers in 1974.

Eldest son Stephen Kautz, now President of Ironstone Vineyards, explained that Steve Millier, the winemaker for Stevenot Winery in the 1980s, had been purchasing grapes from the family and suggested they make a small quantity of wine carrying the John Kautz Farms label. The family agreed as there was the possibility of some future sales to Japan. Opportunity loomed.

Steve Kautz had purchased his grandfather's herd of cattle in 1976 while he was still in high school. He attended Cal Poly at San Luis Obispo as an Animal Science major and had thoughts of becoming a veterinarian. Returning home from school, he heard his Dad announce, “You're going to run the bell pepper operation.” Though he had no real farming experience, Steve acquiesced and must have done an acceptable job of managing some 2500-acres of row crops he had been assigned. Soon the decision was made to build a winery on the ranch at Murphys in Calaveras County. As Steve tells the story, his father said to him, “You've gone to college and you've learned to cook and you can speak a little. You're the president of the new winery. Congratulations!”

“About the only thing I knew about wine at the time was Eye of the Swan (a blush wine made by Sebastiani),” Steve commented. Nevertheless, Ironstone has prospered. Apparently, as with row crop farming, lack of prior expertise isn't necessarily a barrier to developing a winery.Ironstone with flowers SMALL ecct0914wineries01A flowery approach to Ironstone.

Ironstone is much more than a winery, though. It's a major tourist attraction. There's a commercial kitchen, a deli and facilities for banquets and weddings. A resident chef gives demonstrations and cooking lessons. Visitors might enjoy an indoor concert featuring a restored theater pipe organ from the 1920's or a summer concert set outdoors amidst the 14.5 acres of landscaped gardens. Since 1982 Steve Kautz has lived in the little town of Murphys, where the winery and its surrounding Calaveras County vineyards are situated, and he remembers when it was different. He acknowledged that his winery is rather spectacular and that he's in the entertainment business, as well as the wine business. “But the Kautz Family are truly growers,” he reminded a reporter. “Everything else is just an extension of that. We started as grape growers and I absolutely love growing grapes.”

But which grapes to grow can be an issue. In 25 years Steve has seen trends come and go. “We're constantly changing and evolving,” he observed. “It (used to be) Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, then Merlot. Then it was Pinot, Pinot, Pinot. Then Shiraz. Now Cab and Chard are kings again.” He feels his winery president side helps the part of him that is a grower in that he's out in the market place and may be sensitive to what wine drinkers could want in the future. Five years ago he planted Muscat Canelli. Skeptics said, “What're you going to plant next—Barbera? Carignane?” Steve reflected briefly before responding, “Well, yes . . . maybe.”

steve bigbrown SMALLO.K. Which wine to pair with the big brown?The ardent outdoorsman has an unusual approach to wine education and the promotion of his brand. He disdains what he calls the mystique of his industry, preferring “no walls, no barriers when talking about how a grape gets into a bottle of wine.” Sometimes visitors to Ironstone are seated out in the vineyard for tastings. Stephen has even poured his wines on river trips for white water rafters “I like to take 'em out of their environment and put 'em in mine,” he said.

Though brother Kurt Kautz has a degree in Agricultural Economics from UC Davis and carries the title of Chief Financial Officer, he seems to prefer talking about farming than discussing number crunching. Years ago he grew quite a variety of specialty crops for the family produce business. Currently, though, he's busy overseeing about 5500 acres of winegrapes, most of which are planted around Lodi and in southeastern Sacramento County. In addition, he manages the Bear Creek Winery, which receives grapes for family winemaking efforts and for the custom crush market. Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Merlot make up about 75% of the 20 varieties grown. Ironstone produces both regular and reserve bottlings of Cabernet Franc and they may be California's largest single grower of that variety. Kurt supervises 30 to 40 employees year-round, though the total approaches 100 on a seasonal basis. “We have a 60-day window to harvest and (just) 50 harvest days,” he said. “You could not do it all with people, so we machine harvest.”

The quality of grapes in Lodi and the wines made from them have improved markedly, according to Kurt. “The wineries in Lodi are putting out some fantastic wines,” he said in assessing the current situation. “And I know some guys (growers) with small yields who're getting fantastic prices.” Both the grapegrowing and winemaking businesses are changing. “Other countries are competition—they have cheap labor and they're all increasing their quality,” he said. “But the key is getting your yield per acre up and being able to control your quality when you do that.”

Though she had studied Agricultural Business with a focus on international policy at Cal Poly, Joan Kautz stepped into heady responsibility with the family's winery. “My particular role now is international marketing and distribution, a job I began right out of college.” Was that a difficult situation for a young woman? Perhaps so, but she seemed unfazed by the challenge she accepted 19 years ago, saying her mother and father helped. “They've always been particularly supportive . . . and a lot of the people I was to deal with already knew my parents. Also, I had people like Dennis Collins and Jeff Techel as mentors. You can always sit and listen and learn.”

Sales of Kautz Family Vineyards brands had grown to 500,000 cases per year, but lately that has been pared back by about a third. Canada and Denmark are their most significant export markets at the moment, but emphasis changes and evolves over time. The United Kingdom was once a strong market, for instance, but supporting distribution in larger stores became more trouble than it was worth. “We pulled back from (big chain) markets to concentrate on independents and the wholesale trade,” Joan explained. “Now longevity and profitability are more important. Ironstone is the priority brand and (we're) building on our reserve wines.” She's excited about an Ironstone Reserve old vine Zinfandel, dubbed “Centennial,” which will be released this year. Fruit source for this 2009 vintage is the Rous Vineyard in Lodi, which was planted in 1909.

Marketing wine has taken Joan Kautz to some exciting and sophisticated parts of the world, including an eight-month stint in Paris. Though she's still in charge of international marketing, she's happily living back home in Lodi these days where she and her husband are bringing up their two daughters.

She wants to help the business continue to grow and “to develop even stronger brands and brand image—to show the world our dedication and what we have to offer,” she declared. Buyers may have a limited understanding and perhaps a perception that Napa and Sonoma are the only growing regions in the state. “It's a continual battle,” she observed. “(There is) a challenge to get attention and respect from people. We need to show that California is very broad and that there are other areas out there.”John Kautz at desk Lodi office SMALL"It's been a good run." --John Kautz

Asked how farming had changed in the last 60 years or so, John Kautz responded, “Where we used to be a California industry, it's now global. If you're going to be a major producer of any commodity you just about have to be in all segments of it because you have to understand the industry in all parts. And now it's harder. We used to program our game plan with just California in mind. We always had cycles, but now you have to take in the world.”

Mechanization has led to more efficient operations, which certainly is a positive, he believes. The increased presence of government is another matter, however. “The laws and regulations that we have to cope with are just beyond belief,” he said. “Some of it is good. Some is necessary, but the majority is just overkill.” When the subject of efforts by special interest groups that make life harder for a farmer came up, Gail charitably characterized supporters of such causes as having “gotten too far away from their agricultural roots.”

Asked what advice on leadership he could offer to the generation just beginning their careers, John Kautz said “There is leadership both within your industry and leadership within your political arena.” Those likely to help the farming industry are “people who want to get out of their own background and want to learn and develop,” he said. “Awards and recognition will lead to more opportunities. Every industry is looking for young people to come to their boards. They look for a busy person. A major factor is whether you're able to communicate, to work with people and be likeable.”

John and Gail may have earned the right to a full retirement, but that's not in their nature. At a Friday afternoon interview, Gail confirmed that she's still active in several projects, one of which is steering the Ironstone Concours d'Elegance held at the winery each September, an event which supports agricultural youth education. John said he started that day, as usual, with an hour in the pool and spa at home. Later he was visiting a nursery. He showed a visitor flats of orchid plants that he was going to take to Murphys the next morning for the weekend tasting room visitors.

“The kids handle the day-to-day,” he said. “We're still busy, but now we get to do the fun stuff. Our whole focus from day one has been to have the family involved. That's the reward—seeing it continue to grow,” John said. “It's been a good run.”


Editor's note: Links to the websites of Gold Country wineries, as well as lodging and dining options, are found at Taste California Travel's Resource Directory.

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