In 2008, I attended the 13th Australian Wine Industry Technical Conference in Adelaide, Australia — a four-day event packed with technical symposiums, and chose to attend an 8 a.m. seminar on a subject so technical I suspected it would be lightly attended.
Taking my seat in the packed symposium room, I realized that sitting on my left, dressed in a business suit, was Jerry Lohr, owner of one of California's most successful, but under-the-radar, wineries, J. Lohr.
Jerry wasn't alone. He had brought with him a large contingent of winemakers from his growing wine company south of San Francisco, and later told me it was because of Australia's huge lead in wine-making and grape-growing technologies over most of the rest of the world.
I saw very few other Americans at that conference.
Traveling more than 8,000 miles to attend an intensive series of technical seminars was seen as no great inconvenience or major expense to Jerry because, as he said to me a couple of days later, he was in the business of fine wine, not just wine.
To do that well meant getting the latest information on how best to do it. And, he added, "The Australians have great skills in many areas related to great wine."
One indication of Jerry's commitment to quality is that he knows that the best wines are made by skilled winemakers, not marketing departments. To that end he long ago named his head winemaker, Jeff Meier, to also be the company's executive vice president as well as chief operating officer.
Meier, who joined the company in 1984, was on the trip to Adelaide, and he attended literally dozens of sessions at the event.
Has all this led directly to better wines? Hard to say. But I can say that J. Lohr's wines have improved steadily in quality over the last three decades, and in the last four years have taken a quantum leap forward.
Perhaps the most impressive wine in the large J. Lohr lineup is the 2011 red wine called Valdiguie, a grape once called Napa Gamay, which Meier makes into a stylish, fruit-driven Beaujolais lookalike that is nicknamed Wildflower.
Served slightly chilled, the wine is a delight.
I also loved the well-priced 2010 Pinot Noir from Highlands Bench ($35), which has classic pinot flavors and a price well below what many pinots sell for these days.
J. Lohr owns 1,300 acres of Monterey County vineyard land as well as 230 acres of vineyards in Paso Robles. Another good value in the line is a 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon called Hilltops ($35), a Paso Robles wine with nicely defined varietal character.
At the high end of the spectrum is a 2008 blend that's a 50/50 blend of cabernet Franc and cabernet sauvignon called 2008 Cuv? St. E. It delivers cassis, violets and blackberries; it's soft and approachable now, but is best with aeration.
Today without much fanfare, J. Lohr has surpassed the 1-million-case mark in wine production, and the wines are better than ever.
Jerry, a former scientist and land developer, has been actively involved in wine industry promotional and political efforts for decades, and has won numerous industry awards for his leadership.
Today his winery donates $2 from the sale of every bottle of wine dedicated to his late wife Carol (a cabernet and a sauvignon blanc) to Touching Lives, a joint venture with the National Breast Cancer Foundation, which offers free mammograms to women who would otherwise be unable to afford them.