Monday, June 6, 2011

California's secret wine empire

MURPHY'S, Calif. -- Back in 1981, UC Davis viticulturist Harold Olmo culminated more than 30 years of work when he commercially released a cross of Muscat and Grenache grapes that he called Symphony. A former row farmer from Lodi named John Kautz took a chance on the grape, eventually becoming the world's largest grower of the new varietal and producer of his version of a wine from that Olmo creation, Obsession.

From a start of 12 acres in 1948, Kautz has created one of California's largest wineries and wine grape producers called Ironstone. Except for the grapes used in some small batches of sparkling wine, all the Ironstone wines are from the estate. The name comes from the hard rock Kautz and his crews encountered when they blasted holes into the ground in the Sierra Foothills that are now man-made caves used to store Ironstone wines before bottling. With more than 6,000 acres under cultivation (nearly all near Lodi about an hour away from the winery), Ironstone is now one of the top 25 winemakers by volume in the world and one of the top 10 in California.

Never heard of them, right?

Ironstone's Symphony Obsession has a large cult following in America, combining a sweet, floral nose with a more acidic finish for a unique, interesting wine that sells for about $12 a bottle. Ironstone makes another dozen or so wines, most priced under $20, including a pretty good Lodi zinfandel. But Ironstone has become more than just a winery. Kautz and his family have created an enormous operation that includes an outdoor amphitheater (maximum seating: 6,000), a lake, gardens, a six-story building housing everything from the wine caves to a music room (housing the pipe organ from the Allhambra Theater in Van Nuys), and a historical museum that includes a 44-pound gold nugget. (How Kautz obtained the nugget from a mine in nearby Jamestown is a well-kept secret.)

We took the tour, from the immaculate gardens to the Disney-like wine cave to the spotless grounds that include the amphitheater. I'm probably way off, but I calculated in my head that Ironstone produces more than $100 million worth (wholesale) of wine a year, and undoubtedly makes another few million in its side projects.

All of this sounds pretty impressive, but here's the real news: You can taste up to six Ironstone wines for no charge, just like the olden days when wineries actually liked to have people drive by and taste their product. So long as you don't bring your own food and drink (there's a deli on site), you can use the grounds for free for a picnic, which looks like a mighty good idea. Among the acts performing at Ironstone in 2011 will be Willie Nelson (his fourth visit) and Sammy Hagar. The Lodi area and Sierra foothills are rife with wineries large and small nowadays, but Ironstone is one of a handful that is a must-see.

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