Cabernet Sauvignon Specialist
By W Peter Hoyne
J. Lohr Winery may be best known for its easy drinking Seven Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon and Arroyo Secco Chardonnay, yet the complexity of their wines and the identity behind the label is more intriguing. The journey begins as Jerry Lohr, whose family was part of the South Dakota farming community, decided he was destined for more. Jerry pursued a Masters Degree in civil engineering at Stanford University before securing his Ph.D. and becoming a Rhodes Scholar finalist. As a graduate student at Stanford, he thought he could easily integrate into the culture by learning about wine. Jerry joined tasting groups and found his way tasting wine at Paul Mason Mountain Winery in nearby Saratoga, California. This served as a catalyst for his passion of wine. Afterwards, he joined the Air Force and was recruited to work at NASA as a research scientist.
Jerry always had a curiosity for identifying the best areas in California to grow grapes. His interests were grounded in the soil since his early days in South Dakota. He traveled the California landscape in search of the ideal location for his first vineyard. In 1972, he would settle on the Arroyo Secco region of Monterey County planting 280 acres of vineyards with 11 grape varieties. He was among the early pioneers in this territory along with Wente and Mirassou Vineyards. Two years later Jerry teamed up with his friend and business partner Bernie Turgeon establishing Turgeon and Lohr Winery in San Jose. Jerry was determined to make Cabernet Sauvignon, but after several trials realized that the cool, windy hills of Monterey were not well suited to ripen this grape, although Chardonnay would thrive here.
By the early 1980’s, Jerry was approached by the Hyatt hotel chain, which was owned by the Pritzker family of Chicago. They were interested in Jerry crafting a house Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay for their hotels. Jerry realized that he could source Chardonnay from his Monterey vineyards, but was uncertain where to locate Cabernet Sauvignon. He would later discover that there was a sufficient amount of bulk red wine available on the market. Jerry would taste through hundreds of samples over a year and a half period of time before settling on Cabernet Sauvignon from Paso Robles.
It was apparent that Paso Robles was the ideal site to grow red grapes, especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Realizing this potential, he would purchase 480 acres in 1986 on the east side of what now is known as the Estrella district. The winery was constructed the following year. Jerry understood soils and believed in matching the right location with the right grape. In Paso Robles the fluctuations in diurnal temperatures along with the diverse soils were best suited for Bordeaux varietals. Jerry then traveled to France to learn about blending wines. Described as one of the Paso pioneers, he is a believer in sustainability and water management practices.
J Lohr Winery has expanded to 5,000 acres of land with 4,000 acres planted to vineyards. Their production exceeds 2 million cases of wine a year with half of that being Cabernet Sauvignon. Currently, J. Lohr Winery produces four tiers of Cabernet Sauvignon along with a Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah blend labeled Pure Paso. They own an additional 35 acres in Napa Valley, which is used to produce the single vineyard Carol’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon.
His three children are all involved at the winery, but that has not limited Jerry’s ambitions. He has a contagious energy and vitality for life. At age 86, he seems convinced his contributions won’t end any time soon. Among his numerous achievements and accolades, Jerry has received the Wine Enthusiast Magazine’s Wine Star Award as an “American Wine Legend”, the “Innovator of the Year” award from Wine Business Monthly and the UC Davis “Award of Distinction.” In addition, J Lohr Winery was voted “American Winery of the Year” by Wine Enthusiast Magazine.