Harvest is under way at J. Lohr’s vineyards in Paso Robles and elsewhere. But this year holds special significance: The winery is celebrating its 40th anniversary.
The winery, then known as Turgeon & Lohr, was founded in 1974 in San Jose. Jerry Lohr — who had grown up on a farm in South Dakota, then worked as a developer in the Saratoga area — and his business partner, Bernie Turgeon, had bought nearly 300 acres in 1972 in Greenfield, in Monterey County, and planted grapes.
It was somewhat risky: Commercial viticulture in the county was only about 10 years old, and the results hadn’t always been promising. Many growers planted what was selling rather than matching grape varieties to a suitable site. In Monterey, that meant vegetal cabernet sauvignon from cool, windy areas.
“We hedged a couple of ways,” Lohr says. “We didn’t build a winery. And I planted 11 varieties to begin with.”
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By 1979, they settled on four: chardonnay, riesling, pinot blanc and valdiguié, previously known as Napa gamay. Lohr bought out Turgeon in 1984, and the winery’s name was changed to J. Lohr.
Lohr went on to purchase land in Paso Robles, starting in 1986, for cabernet sauvignon, merlot and other warmer-climate varieties, and increased the company’s vineyard holdings in Greenfield. He also owns a vineyard in Napa Valley and planted one in 2008 in the Santa Lucia Highlands. J. Lohr currently owns more than 4,000 acres in California, all of it certified sustainable; leases about 1,000 more; and has wineries in San Jose, Paso Robles and Greenfield. Production stands at about 1.5 million cases a year.
But it all started with Lohr’s belief that Greenfield was a good place for grapes. Finding the right ones was another matter. His early plantings, like those of many others, were heavy on cabernet sauvignon. Lohr quickly realized his mistake, and cab and varieties like merlot and zinfandel were grafted over to chardonnay and other whites. Lohr knew that if he wanted to produce reds like cabernet and merlot, he needed a warmer, lesswindy site.
But his discovery of Paso Robles was something of a fortuitous accident.
Lohr was contacted by the Hyatt chain about providing cabernet and chardonnay for its hotels. He knew that Arroyo Seco would be a good source for chardonnay, but what about cab?
He and his then-winemaker tasted cab samples from all over California, and they liked the flavors from Paso Robles. He purchased 480 acres on the east side in 1986-87 and planted cabernet and other red Bordeaux varieties as well as some syrah and petite sirah. (J. Lohr now farms 2,300 acres in Paso Robles.)
The winery’s success wasn’t something that Lohr ever would have predicted in those early days. “I did the first plan for 120,000 cases,” he says. “A 1 million-case winery? Absolutely not.”