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J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines: 50 Years as Champions of the Imposter Grape, Valdiguié

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Back in 1972, Jerry Lohr and his young family planted vines in the Arroyo Seco region of Monterey County, Calif. Among them were Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon and (something he thought was) Gamay Noir. 

Unlike the Cabernet Sauvignon, which struggled and proved, “the worst decision I ever made,” according to Lohr, those Gamay vines cropped prodigiously, yielding up to 12 tons per acre if not thinned. The grapes were big and juicy and dark as a moonless sky on the backroads of Monterey County, which are still much as they were back in 1972. It was the caboose of the grape crop every year, but J. Lohr happily produced it vintage after vintage. So did a handful of winegrowers in Napa Valley, who had also planted the vines and called them Napa Gamay. This would come back to bite them. 

Steve Lohr, J. Lohr Vineyards
Steve Lohr, J. Lohr Vineyards

It’s customary in the Beaujolais region of France to produce Beaujolais Nouveau in November. A carbonically macerated red wine traditionally made from Gamay Noir grapes, Beaujolais Nouveau is consumed almost immediately as part of the end of harvest celebration, while the rest of the reds are left to figure themselves out in barrel over a long winter’s sleep. That style of wine was very appealing to California winemakers who could also see immediate revenue from a product that didn’t require aging. 

However, what was believed to be Gamay Noir (and, hence, also Napa Gamay), was, in fact, a completely different grape.

DNA doesn’t lie

J. Lohr CEO and President Steve Lohr, eldest son of Jerry, shares the story. Apparently, the French government started clamping down on use of the term “Gamay” in the 1990s. Genetic testing then showed that what the Lohrs were growing in Arroyo Seco was actually Valdiguié, a native of France’s Languedoc region — not Gamay Noir. 

J. Lohr red winemaker Brenden Woods
J. Lohr red winemaker Brenden Woods

Explains J. Lohr red winemaker Brenden Woods, “Valdiguié came here as Gamay Noir in the early 1900s, before Prohibition, and was planted up and down the West Coast. It was loved for its large yields and lower alcohol. During the 1960s and ’70s, it was sold as Gamay Noir, and Napa growers called it Napa Gamay.”  

Woods continues, “We had been calling it ‘J. Lohr Wildflower,’ and had been making it with the same winemaking technique as the Beaujolais style of Gamay. There’s no malolactic, to keep it vibrant and crisp. We do one-third carbonic and two-thirds traditional fermentation. The carbonic adds the same properties as whole-cluster processing.”  (Which means it adds all that nice stemmy stuff! Adds a bit of chewiness and depth to the mid palate to offset the fruitiness)

The big purple berries ripen really late. The 2021 Valdiguié was processed in December: the caboose, indeed. 

New look for a new era

To mark the 50th anniversary of its planting, even though under an assumed name, J. Lohr developed a beautiful new package to showcase this spiffy, spunky quaffer. Along with Riesling, made by talented white winemaker, Kristen Barnhisel (who crafts all the brand’s whites), the current release of Valdiguié (2021) appears in boldly silkscreened packaging under a separate tier called Monterey Roots. 

J. Lohr Wildflower
J. Lohr Wildflower

The Valdiguié packaging features bright blue Monterey lupine, poppies and the Checkerspot butterfly, while the Riesling has an eye-catching wave and a standout Monterey cypress.

Both these varieties once dominated retail shelf space until two things happened, according to Lohr: “Our J. Lohr Valdiguié was hugely popular until the advent of red blends about 20 years ago. When Moscato came online, it killed Riesling as a category, and our shelf placements were eliminated. But Moscato is now on the decline, which is opening room for Riesling.” 

He hopes the bold packaging and the stories behind the Monterey Roots wines will encourage people to take another look — and taste. 

Ironically, the J. Lohr portfolio now rests squarely on the shoulders of one grape that was Jerry’s biggest mistake in Arroyo Seco: Cabernet Sauvignon. Turns out, it was the right grape in the wrong place. 

“We are at 1.8 million cases now as a brand, and 1 million of those are Cabernet Sauvignon — almost all of it from Paso Robles,” says Lohr. “Our 7 Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon is the number one Cabernet in the $14 to $20 price point nationwide.” 

While the Riesling and Valdiguié may not occupy as much shelf space as the other J. Lohr wines, such as the wildly popular October Night Chardonnay, Arroyo Vista Sauvignon Blanc and Hilltop Cabernet Sauvignon, they most certainly occupy a very special place in the hearts and minds of wine lovers and history buffs everywhere.  

And who doesn’t love an imposter that turns out to be downright delicious?

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Laura Ness
Laura Ness

Laura Ness

Laura Ness is an avid wine journalist, storyteller and wine columnist (Edible:Monterey, Los Gatos Magazine San Jose Mercury News, The Livermore Independent), and a long time contributor to Wine Industry Network. Known as “HerVineNess,” she judges wine competitions throughout California and has a corkscrew in every purse. However, she wishes that all wineries would adopt screwcaps!

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