Jerry Lohr is a farmer, descended from a family of farmers. That’s one of the first things the burly, affable man will tell you, and throughout a long dinner table conversation about his life, his career and his winery, J. Lohr – which has grown rapidly in 30 years to become one of the largest in California – Lohr returns to that theme again and again. “I’m a farmer, not a winemaker. This man is one of my winemakers, and a very, very good one,” he said, pointing to Steve Peck, who had joined me and Lohr for lunch at his tasting room east of Paso Robles; Peck has overseen red wine production at J. Lohr since 2007.
Lohr’s skills, as well as his modesty, can perhaps be explained by his rural Midwestern roots. His South Dakota clan has farmed the prairie for generations. His Irish ancestors arrived in the 1880s; the Swedish side came a little later. “I learned that farming is hard. There are no shortcuts,” Lohr said of his days helping work the fields as a kid.
Lohr thrived in an academic environment, receiving his undergraduate degree from South Dakota State University in 1958 and becoming a finalist for a Rhodes Scholarship.
He was accepted at Stanford University for graduate work, and by 1961 he had completed all the coursework for a Ph.D. in civil engineering. During his stint in Palo Alto, he grew to love the geography, climate and entrepreneurial spirit of California. “It was a dynamic place, then as now,” he recalled. “There was an energy here.”
Returning to civilian life after grad school and three years in the Air Force, Lohr immediately started a custom home building business. “I actually pulled my first permit in August of 1964 when I was still in the military,” Lohr said. He incorporated his construction company the following year.
But Lohr’s passion for farming never went away. In Northern California in the mid-1960s, vinifera had just begun to dominate the agricultural scene, and Robert Mondavi was poised to forever change America’s attitude toward wine and its place in popular culture.
Lohr felt that he was arriving a little late to Mondavi’s corner of the wine universe.
“Napa was so crowded already. I thought, ‘Well, how about Monterey?’ I’d been through there and liked it, but didn’t have a particular site (in mind).”
Lohr selected the Arroyo Seco region of Monterey County for his first vineyard in 1971.
Cabernet sauvignon, Lohr’s favorite varietal, was tricky to grow in an area that is profoundly affected by the Pacific Ocean. “The biggest influence is the wind,” Lohr said. “As soon as it gets hot there it pulls the cool air down from the bay.”
The problem revealed itself during the first vintages.
“We planted 90 acres of cabernet and 30 acres of merlot to make a 3:1 blend. We planted those virus-free vines in 1972-73. I begin to see the mistake we’d made in ’74. By ’77 we realized we’d made a huge error. Sometimes only one out of five vintages was good. Then you’d have two or three mediocre years. And then there were two disastrous years. They really devastated things.”
Gradually, through the process of trial and error, Lohr was able to narrow down the most appropriate varietals for his vineyards.
“We went from 11 varieties to four. Unfortunately, the one that really does well there, pinot blanc, never sold. Riesling and chardonnay do very well; we also had clones of pinot noir.”
By the early 1980s, Lohr had seen the light, and he was buying his cabernet sauvignon and other Bordeaux grapes from Napa and Lodi. J. Lohr made more juice than it could handle as a winery, and sold much of it to Fetzer.
Then Hyatt came calling. The huge hotel chain wanted a to buy a lot of wine, and J. Lohr would have to gear up to make much more than its output of 65,000 cases a year. Lohr knew he needed a reliable supply of inexpensive cabernet sauvignon and other Bordeaux grapes. He and his winemaker, Jeff Meyer, set out on a quest. “We bought or sampled over 500 bulk wines from all over. We discovered Paso Robles was a flavor we liked.”
Wines made by Gary Eberle and John Munch, two winemakers who were already well established in Paso, were especially impressive, Lohr recalled.
Lohr had to overcome old prejudices about Paso Robles before he was sold on the place.
“I’d been through here in the spring of 1959. I knew it was really hot here. But what I didn’t know is how cold it got at night. The whole diurnal difference is key.”
In 1986, Lohr finally committed to Paso Robles. He began planting cabernet sauvignon, merlot and other red varietals on what is now 2,000 acres of vineyards, and he established his winery a few miles east of town north of Highway 46. With pending vineyard acquisitions, output may soon top 2 million cases per year.
Lohr talks about his winery’s size reluctantly. “The reason is that there’s no evidence whatsoever that we’ve ever decreased quality. People often assume the worst things just because a winery is big.”
Influential critics have been effusive. Dan Berger wrote in 2012, “J. Lohr’s wines have improved steadily in quality over the last three decades, and in the last four years have taken a quantum leap forward.” Wines from each of its four price tiers — J. Lohr Estates, J. Lohr Vineyard Series, J. Lohr Cuvée Series and J. Lohr Gesture — have won major accolades.
Lohr is also very proud of his winery’s adherence to sustainable practices. J. Lohr’s wineries in San Jose and Paso Robles and the company’s 3,700 acres of estate vineyards in the Arroyo Seco, Paso Robles, the Santa Lucia Highlands and Napa Valley’s St. Helena appellation are Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing operations.
As we finished lunch, Lohr looked about at his vineyards, then at his watch. “It’s time to get out there,” he announced.
Peck said his septuagenarian boss’ work ethic continually amazes and humbles him. “Like all of the best people I know in this business, Jerry is always engaged. He knows what he wants. And at this stage in his career, he knows exactly how to get it.”