Wednesday, September 5, 2012

J. Lohr turns spinach into Pinot Noir

Steve Peck, red winemaker, and Jeff Meier, director of winemaking for J. Lohr. Nice glasses, Steve.
When nature gives you bad e-coli, make Pinot Noir.

This is today's lesson from the Santa Lucia Highlands, and the story behind J. Lohr's new Highlands Bench Pinot Noir.

Three families on Escolle Road, just west of Gonzales, had been growing green vegetables there for years, notably spinach. Spinach and Pinot Noir grapes share the love for cool, foggy mornings.

What they don't share is the same risks from wild animals.

The families' properties bordered on wilderness areas. Deer and wild boar would stop over for some tasty fresh spinach. Their intestines can harbor O157, the toxic strain of E. coli best known for hiding in your factory-farm hamburger.

It's a little-known fact that, despite the attention given to meat recalls, more food-based illnesses come from raw vegetables. Pre-bagged veggies -- like spinach -- may look more hygienic, but they are particularly dangerous because the bacteria can breed prolifically inside the bag.

The families had to install special fencing to keep the animals out and put in costly procedures to prevent O157. And farming vegetables is just difficult and risky in the US, with no help from the federal Farm Bill that heavily subsidizes corn and wheat. Meanwhile, Santa Lucia Highlands' reputation as a grapegrowing area grows every year.

"Those ranches really belong in vineyards," says Jeff Meier, J. Lohr's director of winemaking. "That's their highest and best use."

Jerry Lohr
While he does buy some grapes, Jerry Lohr owns most of his own vineyards; it's how he's able to compete on price in his entry-level tier with much bigger wine companies. But the new Pinot Noir is a collaboration, with the vineyards a joint venture between Lohr and the families that own the land. Seeking a solution to their O157 problem, they sought out Lohr.

"Jerry's been active in the area since 1972," Meier says. "He's always been a good neighbor. They trust him. He has a very good reputation as being someone who's honest."

Shortly after planting the Highlands Bench Pinot Noir in 2008, Lohr got a call from another nearby family, the Costas: was he interested in another joint venture on their 120-acre ranch?

"We got both phone calls kind of out of the blue," Meier says.

The first wine from the first property has just been released. When you consider that it's the first crop and 2010 was a challenging year, it's a very promising wine.

J. Lohr Highlands Bench Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir 2010 ($35) is a likable wine with ripe cherry fruit and nice soft tannins that holds its weight (14.9% alcohol) well. A lot of bigger Pinots aren't all that food-friendly, but the more I drank this with dinner -- a succession of creative small plates at Central Kitchen, so a series of challenges -- the more I liked it. You can order it here.

Don't get me wrong, I also like spinach. But you can't get O157 from wine.

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