I realize I have not written Part 1 of the WBC16 but this excursion to Ironstone Vineyards, in the town of Murphys, in Calveras County, Sierra Foothills was one of the “post-conference excursions”, hence Part 2 for this post.
The Wine Bloggers conference was held in Lodi which is its own AVA. Lodi is about a 2 hour drive from San Francisco and about a 45 minute drive from Sacramento. However, when in California, the key driving word is “traffic”, “how much” is what really determines your drive time. I have to say it is nice when what you read in a book, aka the WSET Level 3 book, that what they say is actually what you get. They describe the Lodi AVA, “as straddling Sacramento and San Joaquin Counties, in the middle of the Central Valley. It has become the largest quality production area in California with around 41,000 hectares. Most varieties are grown, but Lodi is noted as the home to some of the oldest and best Zinfandel vineyards in the state. Many of the growers have generations of history as ranchers….Viticulture and wine making has improved so much here since the 1990s that many famous brands have their base blends produced here.” That is exactly what I found and more, of course.
Murphys, in Calaveras County made famous by Mark Twain’s short story about the jumping frog, within the Sierra Foothills AVA was about 1 1/2 hour drive east from Lodi. “The original vineyards were planted during the Gold Rush. Hot days and cool nights give good fruit concentration, the specialties are old vine Zinfandel and Italian varieties” according to WSET. The Ironstone Winery was just off of Highway 4 in Murphys.
As an aside, I experienced a little deja vu at Ironstone Winery. As we drove from Lodi, we drove through fault line areas like San Andreas and when we passed by Angels Camp, I realized I had driven Highway 4 to get to the Bear Valley Ski area (about a 20 minute drive from Murphys) in the summertime, years ago, where I took a rock climbing seminar over a weekend (another story for another time) My goal was to improve my rock skills for climbing trips. I remember going through all these old mining towns, this was the area of the “niners” of the 1849 Gold Rush era.
A couple of books that I acquired during the conference, one on Lodi, Starstruck In Lodi Again by Chris Kassel and Wineries of the Sierra Foothills by Barbara Keck, are two great resources, giving lots of information and direction on the history and winemakers and wineries of each area.
After having been in very hospitable but very flat Lodi except for my visit to the Kautz Family (owners of Ironstone Winery) Teichert Ranch in the Sloughhouse sub AVA of Lodi where there were rolling hills, rivers and ponds, it was great to be in the foothills of Murphys. Barbara Keck in her book on the region writes that there are about 20 wineries just within Murphys itself. I guess another trip to this area is in order.
When we stepped off the bus and arrived at the winery, we knew weren’t in Lodi anymore.
John Kautz, is a Lodi wine pioneer and one of those growers that WSET references as having generations of history as ranchers and farmers. His story is here on the winery website. He is one of the top 10 grape growers in California, went to high school in Lodi where Robert Mondavi had gone years before and basically switched from cherry growing to grape growing and continued to expand his vineyards over the years so today he has 7500 acres in Lodi and 1100 acres at Murphys. A couple of people in my excursion group were amazed that John had amassed such a wine empire. Joan, his daughter, who guided our group kept reiterating that he had a vision and he worked hard.
In 1989, on land that was in the family, they excavated and created the 7 story winery out of the mountain and built the huge amphitheater. A picture of the 44lb gold leaf specimen that they found upon excavations on Christmas day is below.
The Ironstone Amphitheater attracts people from all over the country. Their schedule seemed to be a mixture of 90’s alternative like Goo Goo Dolls, 80’s stars like Peter Frampton, ZZ Top and Greg Allman and country singers like Chris Young. I never expected to see this huge outdoor theater in this tiny little mining town. The amphitheatre is only part of John’s Kautz’ vision for the winery grounds.
The gold leaf is contained in a vault within their museum at the winery. The museum contains jewelry, gemstones and artifacts dating back to the Gold Rush. I found it to be a mini-Field Museum and as John Kautz gave us the tour, he knew just about every item in it. A visit to the winery is worth just the visit to the museum, let alone, everything else on the property. Movies have used their items in their films because of the authenticity and uniqueness of the collection.
The property meanders, if you go to their website, it lists all the different sections. The grounds, using recycled water, are very green. Joan Kautz explained to us that when forest fires were in the area, the fire teams used the winery as a staging area because of the huge parking lots for the theater. There is an area that reminded me of Japanese gardens, that they use for events and weddings. A long, vine-covered walkway lead us to the caves that were created to age their wines.
One thing missing on the property were electronics, no big flat screen TVS or neon signs, this was really refreshing. The winery itself from the inside reminded me of ManyGlacier Lodge at Glacier National Park. In many ways, Ironstone Winery felt like a park but a real park not a “theme park”. If you find yourself on Highway 4, a stop at the winery is definitely worth your while!!! You won’t find places built like this anymore and it reminds us of what was and to take a step back and sip the zinfandel! Although reading their most recent blog post, Pokemon-Go players have found the winery or should I say Pokemon in its virtual life exists at the winery, read about it here.
As part of our day at the winery, we were lead on a vertical tasting of their signature wine, Ironstone Reserve Rous Zinfandel by Steve Millier, the winemaker since inception. The Reserve is made from 107 year old vines from the Rous Vineyard overseen by Craig Rous in Lodi. The Lodi Wine Commission blog wrote, “Craig ,also, happens to be the owner/grower of Rous Vineyard – a 10-acre Zinfandel vineyard originally planted in 1909 on St. George rootstocks, located in the beach sand-like soils of the east side of Lodi’s Mokelumne River AVA (a Lodi sub-AVA). Rous Vineyard has long been considered one of Lodi’s great growths.”
The 2013 had floral, violet aromas. The 2010 had more floral and violet and ripe blackberry fruit. Steve Millier said that 2010 was an even keel year for ripening. 2012 had hints of baked plum and chocolate. From Quintessential wines their US distributor’s website, “fully mature grapes are hand-harvested and fermented in small rotary fermenters. After undergoing extended fermentation and maceration, the newly-pressed wine is transferred into small French oak barrels and placed in the winery’s underground caverns, at a constant natural temperature of 60 degrees for ten month’s aging.” The alcohol is 14.5%. I tasted baked blackberries and plum in a good way without being a “fruit bomb”with the hint of chocolate and spice, making these wines quite tasty. There is definitely something about really old vines that concentrates the fruit flavors in a subtle way that stays with you on the finish.
Steve then lead us on a vertical tasting of their locally grown cabernet franc. Barbara Keck in her book cites the Cabernet Franc as Ironstone’s “hidden gem”.
Located at 2400 ft. above sea level, these grapes were estate- grown at their Hay Station Ranch vineyard (Murphys location) where warm days are cooled by the evening mountain air. This areas unique soil of decomposed granite mixed with volcanic sediment and red clay produce a wonderful mineral component. Grapes have been grown in the Sierra Foothills for 150 years.
Considering how large the vineyard holdings are, all the vineyard managers confirmed that sustainable vineyard practices are employed. They use crop reduction, leaf removal, organic materials, and drip irrigation to improve the quality and intensity of flavors. Cover crops, which attract beneficial insects, are also employed. In addition, they place owl and wood duck boxes around the vineyards and ponds helping to preserve the surrounding habitats.
After our vertical tastings we had a very delicious dinner prepared by the folks at Outer Aisle foods where the produce used in the dinner was grown at a farm only a few miles away. Interestingly, Jimmy, the chef had come from Chicago years ago.
This post still does not do justice to the property. It is unique. In post 1 to follow, I was able to see one of the Kautz’ property in the north part of Lodi, Teichert Ranch which was a completely different landscape. Usually I follow for the most part, small family vineyards and this was a large one. But as I found in Lodi, hospitality, earnestness in their winemaking, and a spirit of fun and love of what they are doing is very evident in their wine and their actions.
The Rous Vineyard is 10 acres and historic, that is small relative to the Kautz holdings, and that was what their Reserve Zinfandel is sourced from. I think one thing I took away from WBC16 is to keep an open mind and not to make gross generalizations about wines or wine areas. If you find this post a bit meandering it is because Ironstone is a massive place full of nooks and crannies. Who knew that off this little highway was this wine wonderland and park. If you live in the Bay area it is definitely worth a visit to sip the wines, go to a concert, check out the museum or walk the grounds. There is something for everyone. I like visiting Unesco World Heritage sites well this is a California Heritage site in more ways than one!