Stanislaus wineries ponder the need for tasting rooms

July 30, 2009

 

tim-moran-headerCalifornia abounds in popular wine-tasting regions: Napa and Sonoma, the Central Coast, Amador County, Lodi, Calaveras County, Livermore.

But Stanislaus (or Stanislaus Valley, as the local economic development mavens like to say) isn’t on the tasting circuit. That’s despite the fact that it contains two global heavy hitters in the wine industry, E.&J. Gallo and Bronco Wine Co.

Those two behemoths are notorious for their secrecy, and so far haven’t shown much interest in boosting local tourism with a tasting room.

There are other, smaller wineries in the county that are frequently overlooked, however.

Diablo Grande, the troubled resort west of Patterson, obtained its own wine appellation several years ago, and made and marketed wines under the Diablo Grande and Isom Ranch labels.

Diablo Grande even had its own tasting room at the resort, and later opened one in downtown San Francisco. The winery activity got caught up in the financial troubles of the resort, but now that there are new owners, plans are afoot to revive the wine-making.

KitFox wines are produced on the West Side of Stanislaus as well; by Hunter Vogel and his family. Vogel also obtained a federally designated appellation for his vineyards.
Vogel is making two blended wines, Foxy Red and Foxy White, and is planning to release a line of varietals which will include Cabernet, Chardonnay and Merlot.

He also has formed a partnership with Andrew Lerner of Dark Horse, who produces high-end Zinfandels and Cabernets from Sonoma County. Vogel said the partnership has opened up distribution channels for his wines.

KitFox produces about 18,000 cases of wine annually.

Will there be a tasting room?

“We have plans, but we may or may not do it,” Vogel said. “The economics of it is not the best. We would rather put more resources into the quality of the wine, and distribution.”

Wend-Tyler also is making wines on the outskirts of Modesto, and has held occasional wine-tasting events. David Tyler of Wend-Tyler could not be reached for comment as this edition of The Business Journal went to press.

John Monnich is co-owner of Silkwood wines of Modesto, which makes big red wines, including Syrah, Petite Sirah and a blend.

Silkwood wines have taken home some serious hardware at competitions, Monnich said; and the label recently was added to the wine list on Japan Airlines. The airline specializes in wine, and most of its flight stewards are certified sommeliers.

Production is at 10,000 cases, but demand is outstripping supply, Monnich said, and Silkwood likely will be outsourcing some grape supply, since the winery already is using all the grapes from its Modesto vineyards.

So, is there a Silkwood tasting room in the works? Nope.

Monnich says Modesto just doesn’t generate the tourist foot traffic needed to make a tasting room viable. “It’s a retail entity, and you have to have people walking in the door.”

It’s difficult to tell if that tourist traffic is the chicken or the egg, however. Chamber of Commerce and economic development folks would love to generate more tourist dollars with a wine-tasting scene.

Lodi, once known in song as a place you didn’t want to get stuck in, has transformed itself into a bustling wine-tasting region with dozens of small wineries and a couple of big ones to sample from on any given weekend.

It was done intentionally through the efforts of the Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission. The commission actively encouraged grape growers to open tasting rooms, and even offered classes in how to do it.

The result was a dramatic increase in tasting rooms and tourism.

Could that happen in Stanislaus?

Tasting rooms have been discussed, Monnich said, and maybe if there were a cooperative effort to open one, it might work. Perhaps a single site to showcase offerings from Silkwood, KitFox, Wend-Tyler and future Diablo Grande wines.

Who knows, maybe Gallo and Bronco might participate if it were operated by someone else, and they could showcase their higher end wines. Other area products, like Sciabica’s Olive Oil or local almonds and walnuts; also could be offered.

But part of the fun of wine tasting is visiting different sites – seeing Michael & David’s farm produce and café in Lodi, and the big barrel tasting room at Oak Ridge Winery, for instance; or Ironstone’s tourist mecca in Murphys, as well as the rustic Stevenot site down the road.

So, Stanislaus needs to reach a critical mass of smaller wineries and tourists for that to happen. It won’t happen overnight. It will require some leadership, some entrepreneurial growers/winemakers, a chunk of capital investment, and someone with a vision.

Any takers out there?

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