Walt Disney was a pioneer, animator, theme park designer, and consummate entrepreneur. You might say he was a go-big-or-go-home kind of guy. Five hundred miles north of Walt’s Anaheim-based Disneyland, in the Central Valley of California, a young John Kautz watched the meteoric rise of the Disney brand and learned.
Back in the 60’s, John was a gutsy and determined row crop farmer and frontier grape grower in the Lodi wine region. Like Walt, John and his wife Gail had big dreams. So big, in fact, that in 1965 they secured their own headlines when their agricultural acumen, entrepreneurship, and community spirit earned them America’s Outstanding Young Farmer award. More headlines followed when the family (John Kautz Farms) went Mondavi-rogue replacing all their fruit and vegetable row crops with Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon wine grapes. A couple of decades later when the couple inherited 100 acres of Gail’s father’s property up the dusty road in historic 49er Gold Rush country, John tapped his inner Walt. Eager to share the rich history and grape growing traditions of the region, John decided to take local viticulture to the next level and in 1989 broke ground to create his own wine theme park.
Today, Ironstone Vineyards near Murphys, California is a thriving, action-packed, tourist destination. Located in Calaveras County, affectionately known as “Queen of the Sierras,” it boasts a mineral rich, volcanic terroir, ideal for growing a wide range of varietals. The Ironstone entertainment complex combines vineyards, wine tasting, underground caverns, a 7,000 guest amphitheater, culinary centre, Gold Rush Museum, an annual classic car show supporting youth agriculture, a U.S. top-ten fourth of July fireworks celebration, a spring flower show (50,000 daffodils & 40,000 azaleas), 15 acres of spectacular lakeside gardens (which recently received a California Garden Club award), a spring art show… shall I go on (because I could)? As John says, “when we set out all those years ago, we had one plan and that was to create the most beautiful winery in the world. I think we’ve done it.”
A Story in every Glass
When I meet people like the Kautz’s, I’m reminded why I love researching and writing about wine. John Kautz Vineyards is the quintessential, humble-beginnings family success story. When his father died, John took over farming the family’s 38 acres in the Lodi area. Stamina, hard work and risk-taking became John Kautz’s personal mantra. Some 64 years later, the Kautz family owns and manages over 8,000 acres of vineyards making it, the 8th largest family owned vineyard operation in California and amongst the largest wine producers in the U.S. (based on cases sold).
John’s grit and determination paved the way for today’s larger-than-life Ironstone experience, but as you dig into the back-story, you discover a rich multi-generational family business. Gail Kautz, an astute ag and viticulture feminist if ever there was one, is owed her due here, too.
Gail was the first woman Chair of the California State Fair Board, is the 2016 recipient of the prestigious Golden Bear award for her agricultural/viticultural accomplishments, is the 1996 Ag Progress Award winner for her outstanding contribution to Agriculture, is a Lifetime Honourary Member of the California 4-H, holds a Lifetime Honourary State Degree recipient from the Future Farmers of America, is the most recent California Farm Bureau Bountiful Award winner and is a member of the San Joaquin County Agricultural Hall of Fame. Are John and Gail California’s first family of agriculture? It’s hard to argue……
Wine Bloggers Meet the Kautz’s
As part of the annual Wine Bloggers Conference in Lodi, California (#WBC16), I’m scheduled to meet the fabled Kautz family. What’s best, I’ve scored not one, but two separate excursions to Ironstone Vineyards! Our first visit is to the Kautz family’s Lodi vineyards at Teichert Ranch in the Lodi Viticultural Area’s Sloughhouse sub-appellation (see part 2 for the Ironstone visit).
Daughter, Joan Kautz, who manages Ironstone Vineyard’s international sales and marketing, leads our intrepid group of wine writers and bloggers through some of the 7,500 acres of premium wine vineyards. The entire Kautz family – like so many grape growers in the Lodi region – all play a role in the winery’s operation. Joan’s brother Stephen manages the Ironstone Winery. Brother and CFO Kurt, manages all of Ironstone’s financials, runs the custom crush centre at Bear Creek Winery, and oversees the brand California Hotwood – a company John Kautz founded more than 30 years ago to manage the old dried wood that was regularly cleared from his farmland. Brother Jack, is responsible for property development for the family.
Meanwhile, back at the Ranch…
Lodi sits squarely in the heart of the Central Valley, arguably the richest agricultural zone in America. The busy highways remind us this is farm country as 18-wheeler trucks race by with freshly harvested Roma tomatoes, peaches and honeydew melon.
Grapes also grow exceptionally well here in Lodi, fueled in large part by the cooling effects of the gentle, evening Delta breeze. It’s Lodi’s near-perfect diurnal growing conditions of hot days and cool nights that have allowed the Kautz family to take risks and experiment with a broad array of European varietals. Today’s tour, allows us to sample some of the 18 Vitis vinifera grapes grown by Kautz, including Syrah, Petite Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and, of course, the regional heavy hitter – Zinfandel. We learn the risk-taking Kautz’s were the first to plant Chardonnay grapes in the region and today, the Teichert Ranch growing area leads the state in Chardonnay production.
As our bus winds its way around a series of river-stone strewn vineyards and ponds, Joan’s cousin and Teichert Ranch’s lead viticulturalist, Tim Chappell, talks about the Kautz family’s environmental efforts and sustainable practices. As one of the largest grape growers in California, Tim says the family took an early leadership role in vineyard sustainability, implementing an ecosystem-based Integrated Pest Management (IPM) strategy in the early 1970s. According to Tim, IPM is less about search and destroy, and more about creating environments that are unfavourable to pests. Other sustainable practices employed at Teichert Ranch include using cover crops and compost to optimize organic matter and reduce evaporation (they use drip irrigation), building nesting structures for geese, adding boxes to increase owl habitation and raptor perches which, in turn, increase vermin predatory practices (voles, gophers in particular, wreak havoc), and supporting riparian habitat restoration to support more diverse and abundant wildlife populations. Parent company Kautz Family Farms recently received a California waterfowl award for hatching more than 1,000 wood ducks in a year. “Safeguarding the environment is so important to us,” says Joan. “We want to leave the land in the condition that we found it, so we’re extraordinarily conscious of our environmental footprint.”
For their innovation, resourcefulness and leadership in the industry – and for their role in changing the Lodi area into a major wine region – in 2012, the Kautz family was awarded the highest honour in viticulture and management: the California Association of Winegrape Growers (CAWG) Grower of the Year award.
A Complicated History
The elephant in the room for some of us wine lovers at the #WBC16 conference is Lodi’s record as a bulk wine producer. While it’s clear smart wineries have multiple revenue streams, we learn a whopping 96% of Lodi wine production has historically been sold as mass-market, generic “California” wine, providing grape juice for heavy hitters like Sutter Home, Gallo, Constellation Brands, (and more). Those contracts paid the bills and sustained Lodi grape farmers for many generations. But why the focus on bulk vs branded offerings?
Lodi growers always knew those beautiful gnarly vines, the near perfect Mediterranean climate and the range of soil types could be leveraged to market their own artisanal, grower-produced wines. In fact, few regions in the U.S. had the depth of viticulture and viniculture experience as the growers of Lodi. For Lodi winegrowers, however, the absence of a Lodi AVA designation meant they were stuck selling California labelled wine and/or providing the bargain basement 15% top-ups for Napa and Sonoma. Growers were frustrated, they felt under appreciated, and Lodi was left with no real winemaking recognition or respect. For Lodi to truly blossom that had to change, and it was the UC Davis wine educated sons and daughters of those humble grape growers who really pushed hard to make it happen.
In 1986, after years of community organizing and gruelling Tax and Trade Bureau (TTC) document writing, Lodi growers struck AVA gold. The fight for their own appellation and the right to put the Lodi “place name” on their wines was granted. Thirty years later, Lodi is regarded as a premier wine destination with lovingly crafted local wines and 100+ wineries. The anointment of Lodi as Wine Enthusiast’s 2015 Wine Region of the Year, has been a crowning achievement for a region that’s long produced world quality wine but lived in the shadow of Napa and Sonoma.
Building Lodi Awareness….
The Kautz family was part of that Lodi brand revolution. In the 15 years since acquiring Bear Creek Winery (1997) they’ve been laser focused on growing the Ironstone portfolio of brands and establishing a presence in international markets. Bear Creek Winery – where they make all Ironstone wines – is a state-of-the-art production centre offering a range of services to Lodi and regional producers. Bear Creek also offers full service “bulk-tique” production to large commercial producers and negociants worldwide, with the capacity to produce up to 60 million litres per harvest.
Obsession – Symphony – Hitting the right notes
Perhaps the most delicious wine find for me – as we enjoyed a creek-side Mexican feast on a gorgeous California evening – was Ironstone’s Obsession brand. This wine features the little-known Symphony grape and is clearly a Kautz passion project and local hero story. Rarely seen on wine lists or retails shelves, the grape was created by UC Davis, Sacramento professor Dr. Harold Olmo in 1948 and is a cross between Egyptian grape, Muscat of Alexandria and Grenache Gris. The grape was originally named Symphony because of the rich medley of fruit flavours. Ironstone Vineyard’s Obsession definitely delivers highly fragrant and floral aromatics with a chorus of honeydew and grapey notes. As part of our wine education, a tent of fresh-off-the-vine grapes is offered up to help us match grape varietals to Ironstone wines. I’m amazed at how pure the transition is from Symphony fruit to Obsession wine; it’s really a terrific example of get-out-of-the-way winemaking.
Tasting notes….Fresh, floral, this off-dry wine delivers notes of fresh peach, mango and tropical papaya. It has good acidic backbone with a hint of phenolic austerity, perhaps a contribution from the Grenache Gris grape. We paired this light, fruity, off-dry wine with some delicious spicy Mexican tamales, fajitas and guacamole and it was divine.
As we watch the sun set in the western California sky, the delta breeze cooling the Lodi night, our team of international wine writers reflects on the extraordinary hospitality of the Kautz family. From humble beginnings on the dusty back roads of Lodi to a winemaking dynasty worthy of a Disney epic, united by wine, it’s clearly a small world after all.