WineThe Collection

A pioneer of Paso Robles

This year, California’s J Lohr celebrates its 50th anniversary – with its plantings in Paso Robles one of the significant milestones for the family producer back in 1984. Tom Capo pays a visit to the Home Ranch in the Estrella District to learn how this visionary move has more than paid off

Words by Tom Capo

J Lohr's Paso Robles vineyard surrounded by crop fields and rolling hills
The Collection

The drive out to Home Ranch early in the day makes it easy to understand what young Jerry Lohr must have seen in the Paso Robles region before many of his peers. The flatter, cattle-grazing lands are in the rearview mirror on the approach to the J Lohr’s estate, while the hills on three sides undulate and roll together, with the steeper slopes of the Santa Lucia Range to the west acting as a break to the cold ocean air just a few miles away. This part of Paso Robles, now known as the Estrella District, sits in the northeastern corner of the appellation and provides the perfect growing conditions for Cabernet Sauvignon.

Steady winds pouring down the valley from the Templeton Gap lead to a huge night-to-day temperature shift of up to 25°C (45°F) that increases hang-time for the grapes, leading to a compelling complexity of flavours in J Lohr’s top offering, the Signature Cabernet Sauvignon. Cedar and graphite aromas mingle with cassis and plum in the swirling bouquet, and the palate is plush and textured but well balanced with juicy acidity. There’s a ton of intricacy and evolution for such a young wine. The combination of warm days that ensure consistent ripeness from the heartiest grape varieties and cool, even chilly nights that lengthen the growing season dramatically make for a perfect climate for Bordeaux varietals.

All of this would have been evident to a keen farmer like Jerry Lohr – who was raised on a farm in South Dakota – when arriving here in the 1980s, even if only a handful of growers were farming grapes for wine in Paso Robles at the time. ‘Back then, when I was getting my foothold in the winery in the late ’80s, there were 18 member wineries [in the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance]. Now there are close to 300,’ says Jerry’s daughter Cynthia, co-owner and chief brand officer at J Lohr. ‘Jerry knew that Paso Robles is a supreme growing climate with tremendous opportunity for diverse varietals and the best Bordeaux-growing country you could possibly imagine.’

Jerry Lohr in a soil pit at Paso Robles vineyard
Over the years, Jerry Lohr has been a hands-on presence at the Paso estate

The Home Ranch, J Lohr’s first vineyard site in Paso Robles, is now one of 13 vineyard sites owned and farmed by J Lohr in the area, including parcels in five of the eleven recognised districts. As the Lohr family’s holdings in Paso Robles have grown from a few hundred acres to more than 3,000 (1,200ha) – the vast majority of which are certified sustainable – the region has grown alongside them. What was once a modest AVA with a total of only a few thousand acres under vine and a reputation for quality Zinfandel has evolved into a juggernaut of a region with some 40,000 acres (16,000ha) planted to over 60 distinct varieties.

Indeed, since Lohr planted his first vines in the region, Paso Robles has evolved – like all of California’s best wine regions – from a sleepy farm town into an elite wine country, and Jerry wasn’t alone in seeing the potential for Bordeaux grapes here: elite producers like Justin, Daou, Denner and Halter Ranch have also hung their hats on Cabernet and Merlot, with prices steadily ticking ever upwards and the best wines selling out immediately on release. Other exceptional producers have found success with the region’s oldest plantings of Zinfandel – like Turley, Dusi, Peachy Canyon and Tobin James. These wines can be a magnificent counterpoint to the Cabernets, and top bottlings can be very hard to acquire. Producers of Rhône varieties have also found Paso Robles to be exceptional, with highly sought- after producers such as Tablas Creek, Saxum, Linne Calodo, Kukkula and Hermann Story creating powerful and elegant Syrah, Grenache and blends that have become favourites for collectors and consumers alike since the turn of the millennium. And Jerry and his family have been there to witness it all.

Jerry understood farming. The land wasn’t great for a lot of other popular crops, but it was great for grapes

J Lohr didn’t have its origins in Paso Robles, though. Jerry’s initial decision to plant 280 acres (114ha) in Arroyo Seco, Monterey County, in 1972, over a decade before it became a recognised AVA, was similarly prescient. The Lohr family name has been nearly synonymous with Chardonnay from the region ever since, simultaneously building their business and the reputation of the entire area.

‘I started at age 35, in 1972, when my children [Steve, Cynthia and Lawrence] were ten, seven and two,’ says Jerry, ‘and I never wanted to sell out.’ He’s stayed true to his aim: despite 50 years of production, accolades and growth, the family has no intention of selling the winery. Growing to the current scale and remaining a family business while farming sustainably is no small feat, but Jerry has pushed to remain independent. The early gamble on Arroyo Seco paid off, though, with the Lohr family able to purchase vineyard land in Napa Valley’s St Helena AVA. The Napa parcel that Jerry purchased in 1984 – named Carol’s Vineyard after his late wife – makes beautiful Cabernet, but from the start he knew it wasn’t going to be scalable. At least not for the type of wines and production he was imagining. For that, he’d need to look elsewhere.

Jerry travelled and tasted up and down California’s coast, looking for a place where Bordeaux varieties would thrive, until a Cabernet Sauvignon from Connie Klucker’s vineyard in Paso Robles caught his attention. The wine, and the land, seemed to tick all the boxes. ‘When we started in 1984, we had already seen the potential of Cabernet Sauvignon in Paso Robles, so I was able to assemble almost 600 acres [240ha], all of which had been dry land farmed with alternating grain crops and fallow because the rain averaged 12in [300mm] per year and it takes about 20in [500mm] annually to grow a grain crop.’

Jerry Lohr's children Steve, Cynthia and Lawrence Lohr (left-to-right, with Jerry at the wheel) are co-owners of J Lohr and play important roles in the family business

To put it another way, Jerry understood farming as a science and a business from his youth. The land wasn’t great for a lot of other popular crops at the time, but it was great for grapes, and Jerry had commitments to fulfil. The brand was already supplying Hyatt Hotels with roughly 100,000 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon per year, sourced from other growers, and wanted to support that volume of production with their own vines. Jerry was looking for a place to grow Cabernet Sauvignon that would be exceptional, as well as profitable. He found just the thing in the northeastern section of Paso Robles and made his move.

Jerry and his team got to work quickly, planting vineyards in a parcel adjacent to Klucker’s property that would become the Hilltop Vineyard. The oldest remaining vines there are beautiful specimens of own-rooted Cabernet Sauvignon that were planted just a few years later. Once the vineyards in Paso Robles started to bear fruit, the next priority was to build their own winery on site, because it became clear that carting the fruit up north to their facility near Monterey for production wasn’t a practical long-term solution.

Jerry Lohr in the barrel room of J Lohr wines
Jerry in the barrel room back in the day

The original facility in Paso Robles was large by the standards of the time, housing production for more than 100,000 cases right off the bat, but it has grown slowly and steadily as J Lohr has evolved into a global business. Over time, they’ve added ever-larger additional buildings that house a dizzying array of barrels stacked vertically and packed in as densely as possible, as well as an impressive array of temperature-controlled tanks in a range of sizes from extra-large to behemoth. (‘You’re not afraid of heights, are you?’ asks red-wine maker Brenden Wood as we climb several flights of steep stairs to a narrow walkway running between two rows of massive tanks.) This complex is now home to all red-wine making for J Lohr, while all white wines are made up in Greenfield, closer to the Chardonnay vineyards in Arroyo Seco. Small, incremental growth after large vineyard acquisitions has always been the key for J Lohr, never moving too quickly and never overextending.

The elevated catwalk isn’t the sort of thing that’s shown to tourists, but the view is admirable. From here, a good portion of the Home Ranch is visible, including a 3-acre (1.2ha) array of more than 2,000 solar panels that generate roughly 75% of the facility’s electrical needs. Beyond that field of panels is another highlight of J Lohr’s sustainability efforts, if a less shiny and technologically impressive one.

What’s visible in the distance is a compost field, loaded with row after row of skins, stems, seeds and other organic matter from the vineyards; once the winemakers are done with it all, the worms get their turn. The compost that’s created here is deep black-brown in colour and exceptionally nutrient-rich. Walking between rows of own-rooted Cabernet in the Hilltop Vineyard, vineyard manager Johnny Perini notes that using this compost in all vineyards allows J Lohr to skip regular nitrogen additions – a rarity for vineyards at this scale.

The Signature Cabernet was created in 2017 to mark Jerry Lohr's 80th birthday

Tasting through an array of the wines on a beautifully appointed veranda, a handful of common traits becomes clear. First, they share a fruit-forward character that’s classic for Paso Robles, where warm days lead to profound ripeness year after year. More importantly to the house style, the wines are deeply coloured and possess a notable plushness and softness. Even the intense young Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah and Rhône blends all share a structure that is more balanced than simply tannic, and there’s a persistent core of acid to keep the wines from feeling overly weighty. ‘For many years, our winemakers described our wine as dark and soft, but never green. Our colour comes from farming to grow small berries, so we have a high skin-to-juice ratio,’ says Jerry.

Since 2017, the estate’s top offering has been the Signature Cabernet Sauvignon, 500 cases of clone 337 Cabernet crafted from the Beck Vineyard in the Creston District, created to commemorate Jerry’s 80th birthday. It’s a powerful but elegant wine, treated lavishly with French oak and held back for three years before release. It’s charming and very drinkable now, but patience does have its rewards.

The Signature Cabernet Sauvignon is a powerful but elegant wine, charming and very drinkable

Stepping into J Lohr’s newly renovated visitor centre, history immediately creeps into the periphery. A glance to the left reveals a thoughtfully scattered cluster of black-and-white photographs that document five decades of working the land, with a similarly arranged grouping on the right. In the photos, early employees pose and smile with members of the Lohr family in their youth, Jerry sniffs and reviews an array of new releases, and vineyard workers and winemakers display their skills. These are the sort of photos that would fit right in if they were hung in the living room of any tiny vigneron in the south of France. Instead, they adorn the walls of a 50-year-old family-owned-and-operated winery halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles that has seen the entire wine region blossom all around it.

The photos remind the viewer that J Lohr was among the early pioneers of this now-heralded region and that it’s been a long and winding road to this place and time. Sure, finding the perfect site for Merlot may have proven tricky, and Pinot Noir didn’t work in the first parcel where they tried to grow it, but for five decades Jerry and the Lohr family have been right far more often than they’ve been wrong.