J. Lohr wines: Engineered for quality, value and layers of flavor

CEO Steve Lohr says the 2013 Seven Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon is the best they ever made. Kroger sells it for $19.99 but it's on sale for $13.99, or $12.59 if you buy four bottles. (Image courtesy of jlohr.com)

CEO Steve Lohr says the 2013 Seven Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon is the best they ever made. Kroger sells it for $19.99 but it’s on sale for $13.99, or $12.59 if you buy four bottles. (Image courtesy of jlohr.com)

Push a cart down the wine aisle at big-box stores and watch people load up on J. Lohr Seven Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon. But that can happen at Meijer and Kroger too, and lots of wine shops.

Seven Oaks has always excelled for the price, but according to Steve Lohr, chairman and CEO of J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines, the 2013 vintage is “the best we have ever made.” On a recent visit to Detroit, he called it an $18 wine that drinks like fifty.” The 2013 vintage was near-perfect in Paso Robles, he said.

J. Lohr remains one of the oldest, most consistent producers of high-quality, reasonably priced wines in modern California wine history.

Forty years into their story, this winery is still family owned and operated, and still uses predominately their own grapes from their own vineyards. Plus the people who charted this success are still there moving the winery forward.

“We are authentic,” said Steve Lohr, who recently succeeded his father Jerry Lohr as chairman and CEO.

Steve attributes their success to several things including the way a civil engineer thinks. Both Steve and his dad started out as civil engineers building custom homes. “We figure out what makes things work, and then we make it affordable without sacrificing quality,” he said over lunch at Big Fish in Dearborn.

He also cited all their acres of vines — some 4,000 planted acres spread over Paso Robles, the Arroyo Seco and Santa Lucia Highlands areas of Monterey, and St. Helena in Napa Valley. Steve asked me to read aloud the small print on the back label of a bottle of J. Lohr Fog’s Reach Pinot Noir: “Produced and bottled by J. Lohr.” It’s on every Lohr back label. “That means we control every phase from crushing, to fermenting, to aging and bottling.” That’s not the case, he added, if the label should read “vinted by” or “cellared by.”

But something else also accounts for their success — and that’s Jerry Lohr’s decision early on to grow vines in California’s Central Coast. He chose the Arroyo Seco appellation of Monterey County for his first vineyard because of the long growing season. Steve, then a young boy, helped his dad plant that vineyard in 1972.

Today, the Lohrs are building a third facility to process wines, planning an “iconic” Cabernet Sauvignon from the super 2013 vintage for release next May and celebrating the release this year of a new wine in the Estates Series — the Flume Crossing Sauvignon Blanc from Arroyo Seco.

Steve said his dad, Jerry, 78, is still active in the business but divides his time between a farm in South Dakota — he grew up there — and California. Steve’s sister and brother also play key roles at the winery. Cynthia is vice president in charge of marketing and Lawrence is director of wine education. And after all these years, Jeff Meier, who worked his first harvest at J. Lohr in 1983, is still the head of winemaking and also president and COO. Steve Peck is red winemaker.

J. Lohr produces several tiers of wines. The two tiers in widest distribution are the Estates Series  and Vineyard Series. The Estates wines are easiest to find and are priced under $20. The Vineyard Series covers artisan wines in more limited production. They use the highest-quality fruit from Arroyo Seco, Paso Robles and Napa Valley. The reds run $35-$40.

Here’s a taste.

(Estates) J. Lohr Falcon’s Perch Pinot Noir Monterey County 2013, $17: Don’t think twice about this one: Just put a bottle in your cart. Where else are you going to find another Pinot of this pedigree with fruit from Arroyo Seco and Santa Lucia Highlands? It’s bold and earthy, with cherry, raspberry, juicy strawberry and plum notes and that subtle taste of sage in the finish. Lohr increased the portion of SLH grapes for the 2013 Falcon’s Perch.

(Estates) J. Lohr Wildflower Valdiguié 2014, $10: This is a Gamay-style wine — lighter-bodied, fun and fruity — that Lohr has grown for years. The price and quality make it a worthy candidate for the Thanksgiving table. This deep-colored beauty blasts the nose and palate with soft cherry, blackberry, cranberry and black pepper notes. Lohr ferments most of the grapes like a traditional red wine, but about 28 percent undergoes carbonic maceration like Beaujolais — the whole clusters are fermented in a sealed tank with carbon dioxide for two weeks, then pressed. This technique gives the final wine lots of color and berry fruit flavors.

(Vineyard Series) J. Lohr Hilltop Cabernet Sauvignon Paso Robles 2012, $35: This wine was a Double Gold winner at the 2015 San Francisco International Wine Competition, meaning every judge on the tasting panel voted it Gold. It’s like an essence of Cabernet with bold, intense aromas and flavors infused with spice and smoke that wake up every sensory spot in your head. It’s a smooth, round package of oak-infused cherry, plum, raspberry and dark chocolate flavors.

(Vineyard Series) J. Lohr October Night Chardonnay Arroyo Seco, Monterey 2013, $25: Combine a near-perfect vintage, the use of mostly the Musqué clone of Chardonnay, and stone-strewn soils of Arroyo Seco that absorb heat in the day and radiate it at night and you have a seriously delicious wine. Barrel fermentation and aging in French oak intensify everything. It’s an exotic wine with aromas of orange zest, tropical fruits, fresh peach, honeysuckle and honey. The rich, silky texture and seamless integration of oak are braced with crisp acidity. Not your everyday Chardonnay.

(Vineyard Series) J. Lohr Carol’s Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc St. Helena Napa Valley 2014, $24: Aromas of intense herbal, tart citrus and gooseberry notes with a hint of nuttiness are followed by floral, herbal, citrus flavors with added complexity from a portion of the wine fermented in French oak. There’s a delightful creaminess on the midpalate and the finish is long, crisp and dry. Carol’s Vineyard is dedicated to founder Jerry Lohr’s late wife, who had breast cancer and died in 2008. Two dollars from the sale of every bottle — there is a Cabernet Sauvignon too — are donated to the National Breast Cancer Foundation to fund mammograms for women in need.

(Vineyard Series) J. Lohr Cabernet Sauvignon Carol’s Vineyard St. Helena, Napa Valley 2012, $40: This beauty is concentrated and rich with texture like silk. It’s a wine to sip and catch all the layers of flavor — dark cherry, strawberry, plum, dark chocolate, vanilla, espresso bean. In the mouth, the spicy, toasty French oak is well-integrated; acidity is sturdy. It’s delicious and just waiting for a juicy grilled Delmonico. It has a fair amount of Petit Verdot to add flavor and length.

You can reach Sandra Silfven at ssilfven@hotmail.com.