Jeff Meier - Senior Vice President of Wine Making - J. Lohr Vineyards and Wines

03/22/2009 12:30

J. Lohr is one of our all time favorite wines.  Whether you are looking for a great weeknight wine, a bottle to bring to your friends, or something to cellar, J. Lohr brings many different wines for any occasion.  Jeff Meier, Senior Vice President of Wine Making spent the time to answer some questions for  about himself, J. Lohr and the overall wine industry.  We thought you would enjoy his insights, and unique perspective on the industry. Enjoy!


What created your passion for wine making?

Growing up in California provided the exposure to wine from a young age. When I went to U.C. Davis for college in 1979, I discovered that the school had a world-renowned program in Viticulture and Enology, and that prompted additional interest for a lot of students at Davis (kind of a sense of pride in the program). I also had a friend at Davis whose family grew grapes for Joseph Phelps, and he would bring wine on occasion to different functions. I could taste the difference in these better wines. They were more flavorful, interesting and exciting. Each new wine experience brought more enthusiasm. 

Wine has such complexity of aromas and flavors from different varietals, appellations, producers, techniques and the like that it is a never-ending discovery that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being a part of. And there is no other beverage that pairs as well with food!


What is a typical day like for a wine maker? 

On the way to work I’m on the phone with either our senior vice president of sales, red winemaker, vice president of production, vineyard managers or growers catching up on the latest news. Once at the winery, I pop into the lab to look over the previous days analysis – free sulfur dioxides on finished chardonnay barrel lots, malic acids on chardonnays undergoing malo-lactic fermentation, pH’s and total acidities on chardonnays finished with malo, and bottling chemistries. I also am writing adjustments or additions for our production manager to execute in the winery. I write up blending trials, findings and other schedules for taste evaluation. Normally, I taste what is being bottled and typically five to ten other wines in various stages of winemaking each day, deciding the next steps for each wine. Many days we’ll taste upwards of forty wines doing blending trials, fining trials, oak evaluations, etc. The rest of the day is a blur of phone calls, emails, looking at sales projections versus estimates, inventory levels, vineyard estimates and other relevant information to plan production. I read quite a lot from journals, industry news and other related fields. The next thing I know, I’m back in the car and on the phone on my way home!

In other industries, you usually want to leave your work at home. Is that possible in the wine making business? 

I enjoy my job, and when I get home, my wife, two daughters and I will sit down to a dinner that my wife or I have made, and normally we crack open a bottle of wine. Regardless of where I am, I always think about what I’m tasting, where it’s from, how it might have been made, what is different about it, and if there is something I taste here that could benefit the wines that J. Lohr makes and so on. I think about my work all the time, but fortunately, I can enjoy a glass of my creation at the same time.


What’s your best wine story? 

I had a really good friend that I met originally at J. Lohr, who moved on to other employment, but always kept in touch. I can’t remember the year, but I think it was 1988, and Brett (my friend), his wife Doreen, my wife Kathi and I went to Mt. Shasta for a short weekend water skiing vacation. The last night in Mt. Shasta, we went to dinner at the local resort restaurant – the Whales Tale.  I packed along a bottle of 1985 Chateau Canon from St. Emilion, France that a gentlemen had given me in exchange for some lab analysis. After paying a meager $5 corkage fee, we watched the waiter pull out the longest cork any of us had seen to date. He poured us all a glass – no taste and swirl before pouring for everyone – and as we all put our noses into the wine and took our first taste, we looked at each other, speechless. It was for all of us the most elegant, delicious wine that we had ever tasted and was a fitting end to a great weekend with close friends. I have the label of that wine and the description in my “Wine Album” book at home!


What’s your advice for new wine enthusiasts?

Try lots of wines. Find a local wine shop that does in-store tastings, and go to a few. See if you find some wines you enjoy. Find a store attendant and tell them the wines you like and then ask them to recommend others that you might enjoy. It doesn’t have to be expensive. My local wine shop in Pleasanton, CA – the Wine Steward - carries some really neat wines in all different price categories. Be adventurous, and if you’re disappointed in most cases you haven’t invested a lot of money!


What do you love about your job? 

There are many things to love - the lack of routine, being outdoors, the differences that each vintage brings, creating something that captures the essence of each year’s weather (and you can drink and enjoy it), the merger of art and science.


What do you do when your not around wine?

I like to do a lot of different things including cooking, spending time with my family, hiking, softball, playing guitar, listening to music and woodworking.


How did you end up working with J. Lohr wineries? 

At UC Davis, my professors said that this winery in San Jose was doing some good work, and after selling wine for a year and a half after graduating, a job posting came up for crush help at J. Lohr. I went to work for a harvest and never left!


J. Lohr often says it is run like a boutique winery, with the technology and equipment of a large scale operation. Can you tell us a little more? 

At J. Lohr, we take the detailed approach of a small winery, breaking each vineyard into blocks with similar soil types, choosing appropriate variety and clone and rootstock for each site, assessing appropriate water, fertilizer and soil amendments.   We do lots of hand work in the vineyard from shoot positioning, leafing, veraison thinning to hand harvesting our premium blocks. In the winery, we keep each block separate through fermentation, assessing quality along the way. We experiment with different yeasts, malo-lactic bacteria, temperatures, pumpover techniques, barrel types and makers. The list is endless. But unlike many smaller scale wineries, we are able to afford higher tech equipment from the laboratory such as FTIR technology for wine analysis (using no chemicals), automated color and phenolics evaluation during red wine fermentation, processing equipment of automated berry sorting tables, and automated additions of grape acid and sulfur dioxide and fruit analysis. All in all we pay attention to the details as a small winery, but with larger lots.


J. Lohr is a well known winery. Is there anything that we don’t know about the winery that we should? (secrets, facts, etc.) 

One important secret to J. Lohr’s success is the longevity of our staff. Many of the positions at J. Lohr winery and the people in those positions are the original hires. We have a few staff with 30 years experience, a larger group with greater than 20 years with the winery and a huge number with greater than 10 years at J. Lohr. The consistency and success of J. Lohr in large part is due to the dedication and service of its employees.


J. Lohr has developed three tiers of wine, J. Lohr Cuvee Series, J. Lohr Vineyard Series and J. Lohr Estates; what should we expect when trying each? 

I’ll speak in reverse order starting with the Estates wines. These wines are all blends from our ranches, dutifully grown by our vineyard managers. They are meant to be fruit driven, complexed with barrel age, approachable wines upon release with the exception of our White Riesling and Valdiguié which are stainless steel fermented and aged. Typically the whites are a vintage ahead of the reds in the market (2007 whites and 2006 reds). Our Vineyard Series wines represent the best fruit for each variety in our vineyards. The reds are hand picked, destemmed, sorted and fermented in open-top stainless tanks using punch downs or pumpovers. They are barrel aged in a high percentage of new French oak barrels for greater than 18 months and are at least a vintage behind their Estate wine counterparts (Hilltop Cabernet 2005 and Estates Cabernet 2006). The whites are treated in a similar fashion, but are barrel fermented in a high percentage of new French oak with 15 months on the lees before bottling. The exception being Carol’s Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc which is stainless steel barrel fermented and aged on the lees. Our Cuvée wines represent the best of the best with an eye towards French texture and are only made in exceptional years.  They are only reds, and represent blends based on Cabernet Franc for Cuvée St. E, Cabernet Sauvignon for Cuvée PAU and Merlot for Cuvée POM with a little Petit Verdot and Malbec thrown in for good measure. They will be run through the same sorting system as the Vineyard Series reds, but will spend a little more time in the best French barrels made. They also will spend a full year in bottle prior to release.


What should our readers be trying from J. Lohr right now? 

Try the 2006 J. Lohr Estates South Ridge Syrah and the 2007 J. Lohr Estates Seven Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2006 Hilltop Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon and 2006 October Night Vineyard Chardonnay in our Vineyard Series lineup are worth a special search.


Do you have a favorite we should seek out? 

I still am a lover of our Chardonnays. The 2007 J. Lohr Estates Riverstone Chardonnay and the 2006 October Night Vineyard Chardonnay are really delicious wines. But I also love the 2006 Tower Road Vineyard Petite Sirah.


What’s the biggest challenge you have in making wine for an internationally recognized brand?   

Patience! Wine takes time and I often have to curb my enthusiasm for wines that aren’t released yet.


When Jerry Lohr started planting wines in the Central Coast, it was relatively unknown. How do you think the central coast ranks now? 

I think that Monterey is recognized for outstanding Chardonnay and Pinot Noir now, and Paso Robles is continuing to emerge as a stellar red wine producer – just ask Robert Parker.


Has the wine industry changed in the last few years, if so how? For instance, has the internet changed the wine industry? 

The industry continues to be comprised of fewer players with the consolidation of wineries through acquisition by bigger wine companies. This leads to more fierce competition of the remaining entities. Multiple winery bonds within a single winery have allowed for the emergence of many micro-brands producing as little wine as 2 barrels. The internet and high-end, hungry oenophiles have allowed many micro-brands to exist with full retail marketing of a small number of cases at high prices and avoidance of the three tier marketing system. Additionally, consolidation in distribution and retailers have greatly reduced the number of outlets for wine sales.


How do you think the economy is affecting the wine business? 

The economy has impacted wine industry sales, particularly on-premise (or in restaurant) sales and higher retail priced wines. Consumers are trading down in price with the $5 to $20 per bottle price segments remaining the least impacted. For higher priced wines, only iconic brands - of which there are very few – are immune to a downturn in sales.


Any predictions for the wine industry in the next 5 to 10 years? 

Globalization of the industry will continue with increased pressure on retail wine pricing that will be good for the consumer, but not so good for the producer. The U.S. will become the number one wine market in the world. There will be a huge turnover in California winery ownership in the next decade with the passing of the founding matriarchs/patriarchs.


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