Former NASA scientist Jerry Lohr has been the driving force behind the promotion of high-quality vineyards in Monterey County and Paso Robles, including his own J Lohr Vineyards label. Janice Fuhrman meets the tireless Californian pioneer
Growing grapes is not rocket science. Making good wine from them is. As a former research scientist for NASA, Jerry Lohr, owner of California’s J Lohr Vineyards and Wines, may be the only vintner in the world who can claim to possess the necessary qualifications. Yet it is Lohr’s status as a pioneer in the central California coastal appellations of Monterey and Paso Robles that most define his career and his contributions to the American wine industry.
‘In this industry there were certainly other people before me who scouted things out,’ says Lohr. ‘People had been in the wine industry dating back to the early 1800s, but the pioneer is the one who settles.
‘Scouts go and camp and stay for a while, maybe even marry a local, but the pioneers are the ones who build a community. And I don’t mean to be immodest but I think that’s what I’ve done.’
Lohr hails from hardy Scandinavians who settled in South Dakota in the 1800s.
Settling for Lohr has meant buying and planting some 1,200ha (hectares) since the 1970s in Monterey, Paso Robles, Napa and other areas, and tending those vineyards. ‘There’s not an acre of land, of our vineyards around the state, that I have not run a tractor over,’ says Lohr. It also meant banding together with other vintners in the early days to help pull the inchoate industry together – a effort that continues today.
Lohr is relatively soft-spoken for a man of his 1.9m stature and many ccomplishments: he is a former Rhodes scholar, holds a graduate degree from Stanford University, and ran a successful construction business developed at the same time as his winery. As a captain in the Air Force in the early 1960s, he was assigned to the NASA Ames Research Center for four years.
‘It may be his background at NASA, but he has this amazing ability to take issues that are tough, that are big, that are difficult, and break them down, so others can see them and work through them one by one,’ says Bobby Koch, president and CEO of Wine Institute, a public policy advocacy association of 715 California wineries. ‘He’s fair, he’s balanced, he’s measured, he’s smart, and that’s why there is a real appreciation for Jerry in the entire wine community.’
AT HOME ON THE RANGE
But Lohr tends to play down what he’s done for the industry. ‘I do things that are hidden. I don’t like to talk about them. It sounds pompous.’ Loquacious he is not, but Lohr is a man who has his heart as well as his muddied, industrial-strength work boots firmly rooted in the land. Whether talking about his California vineyards or the 650ha of South Dakota farmland where, in his spare time, he grows corn and soybeans, he waxes lyrical about organic materials, no-till farming, rotating crops, and soil nutrition. ‘That’s my avocation. Some people go fishing. I go back to South Dakota and farm.
‘Getting to know the land is so important. It’s not being done nearly enough in California vineyards today,’ he says.
At 67, Lohr is an energetic bear of a man with a ruddy, weathered complexion and an ample head of grey hair. At the J Lohr headquarters in San Jose, he dresses in the uniform of most California vintners and winemakers: denim jeans, a casual shirt and a vest bearing his winery’s logo. ‘I don’t even dress up for bankers anymore. You just get comfortable with yourself.’
‘Jerry is a 24/7 kind of guy,’ says Jeff Meier, who has worked by Lohr’s side for the past 20 years and is now vice president in charge of winemaking. ‘He’s been active since the 1960s, championing Paso and Monterey counties, and has learned lots of
lessons along the way. Monterey County turned out to be a jewel.’
In the late 1960s, Lohr started looking at the Monterey region, where he counts among his fellow pioneers the families that own Wente Vineyards, Mirassou Vineyards and Paul Masson Winery. Lohr believed its gravelly loam soil and climate would serve wine grapes well, and in 1972 he planted 113ha in the Arroyo Seco appellation. ‘We planted 11 different varieties and it was my goal to find those that did best and graft over the ones that did poorest. We didn’t really know what we were doing,’ says Lohr.
By the late 1970s he had narrowed his 11 down to four varieties. Today he harvests Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Blanc and Gamay. Those rejected were Cabernet, Merlot, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Pinot Noir and Gamay Beaujolais. ‘We had a carefully thought-out reason for each one we rejected: the Cab didn’t ripen in the cooler climate, the Merlot didn’t set in the windy climate. With Pinot Noir, we didn’t have the right clone for that particular soil and climate. Now, 30 years later, we have the right clone and we’ve just planted Pinot Noir there.
‘We grafted over 70% of our initial planting,’ he says, shaking his head. ‘Pioneering isn’t always easy, and we struggled. But you have to stick with it to see if it will work.’
Some 15 years later, in his quest to find an ideal site for Cabernet Sauvignon, he ventured further south to the rugged Paso Robles area, about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. When the Hyatt hotel chain asked Lohr in the early 1980s to craft a house wine, Lohr explored Cabernets from throughout the state and liked those from Paso Robles best. ‘Paso,’ says Lohr, ‘is the Pomerol of California.’
Lohr now owns 800ha in the area. ‘The farmer in me wants to grow my own grapes,’ he says. ‘We want to own them.’ Today, Paso Robles is considered by many to be the most diverse and dynamic wine region in the country, producing everything from Rhône to Cal-Ital varietals. It is also the fastest-growing US wine region. Over the last 15 years many wineries – small and large, new and established – have joined Lohr and a small group of fellow pioneers, including Gary Eberle and Ken Volk, in making wine there.
Pomerol or not, Lohr insists he is not copying the French. ‘I’ve never wanted to emulate their style. I’m far more interested in pioneering. Instead of worrying about what others are doing, we ask ourselves, “Is this a good wine?” And, “Is this a good reflection of what we can do in this area?”’
Lohr is inflexible about his choice for the ultimate red wine. ‘You can go hear a chamber music concert, or you can go hear the whole symphony; and the red wine that is closest to a symphony, in my mind, is Cabernet. I thought that 25 years ago, and I don’t think any differently now.’
Matching grapes to the right sites has long been the mantra at J Lohr, and Lohr counts among his major precepts: ‘Growing the right grapes in the right place, not trying to follow every fad, making the wine in a style that nature gives us, using traditional practices but also bringing in modern technology.’
Strong at consensus building and dogged in his pursuit of goals, Lohr co-founded the Monterey Winegrowers Association in 1975, and is a founding member of Wine Vision, an organisation that aims to develop a more competitive US wine business.
‘He has brought a great deal of passion to the wine industry, tremendous attention to detail and he has the ability to bring people together,’ adds Koch.
Lohr’s most gratifying accomplishments are chairing the Wine Institute in 1991, and heading a strategic planning task force the year before to develop the group’s public policy mission statement. ‘It was important for us to address the question of how we as an industry were seen by the American public. Was it as an agricultural product, as a good part of the California and US culture and economies or just as a negative alcohol product? It’s an ongoing issue, but I believe we’re just one more form of agriculture, and agriculture is what feeds a nation.’
Janice Fuhrman is a writer and filmmaker who lives in northern California. She is the author of Napa Valley: The Land, The Wine, The People (£21.83, Ten Speed Press
Written by Janice Fuhrman