Talkin bout generations: Mohr-Fry
Mohr-Fry Ranches’ Jerry Fry and his son Bruce are fourth and fifth generation California farmers, born with the patience of Job and dirt under their nails. Although they don't make any of their own wine under the family name, their reputation as quality grape growers is held in highest esteem among the 700-plus other independent growers in the Lodi appellation – because bottles don't lie…
Exhibit A: the wine sourced from the Frys’ oldest parcel, named Marian's Vineyard – originally planted in 1901 by the Mettler family – is commonly referred to as the "Mother of all Zins" because of how it epitomizes all the goodness in its lineage as much as the compellingly deep, monumental expression of Lodi grown Zinfandel that it so generously gives.
Marian Mohr was one of the first women to study agriculture at U.C. Berkeley, graduating with a degree in agricultural business in 1935. It was at Berkeley that Marian met Jeryl Fry Sr., and their original family farm was based in Mount Eden in the East Bay, prior to their moving over to the Lodi wine country in 1955. "My mother," Jerry Fry tells us, "was actively involved in the day to day operations of Mohr-Fry Ranches until her passing three years ago, at the age of 93. What she and my dad taught us was integrity – integrity with how we live our life and do business, and integrity in what we grow."
Stuart Spencer, who took over St. Amant Winery from his father, the late Tim Spencer – a small producer and community fixture who established a towering reputation in Lodi for his no-bull approach and wines of unimpeachable character – continues to produce the quintessential Zinfandel coming from the Marian's Vineyard. Like his dad and the Fry family, Stuart lets the quality of his wines do the talking, and all are throwbacks to a time when contracts were "signed" with nothing more than a firm handshake and a respectful look in the eye.
Says Mark Chandler, Executive Director of the Lodi Winegrape Commission (where Stuart Spencer also serves), "Jerry Fry is cut from the cloth of California's early agriculturalists who were pioneers, businessmen and statesmen… a man who thinks things through with an eye on the long term."
Which is the story of Lodi's multitude of multi-generation farming families, so unique even in this agricultural state. It's epitomized in Jerry's son, Bruce, who has been handling picking shears since his hands were big enough to get around them. Bruce tells us, "I worked Mohr-Fry Ranches all through high school, graduated from Cal Poly (in 1995, with the same agricultural degree as his grandmother) on a Friday, and was back to work the following Monday."
Of his two daughters, Mohrgan (8) and Julia (6), Bruce is already seeing that "look" in the eyes of Mohrgan. "The other day I suggested that she spend the day working with me, and she was up and ready to go even before me at 5 AM. You never know, but it might be a good bet that she'll be representing the sixth generation of Mohr-Fry farmers."
Walking through their 725 acre vineyard (172 of that devoted to heritage Zinfandels, planted in 1944 or earlier), Jerry and Bruce keep a running conversation on their labors. "Like the Tokay, which we grew for the table grape industry up until the eighties (Flame Tokay was pretty much replaced by seedless varieties of red grapes in the supermarkets by the end of the seventies), Zinfandel has found its natural home in Lodi," Jerry tells us. "It grows easily on its own rootstocks, and we learned that if we pulled leaves we knocked out leaf hoppers while increasing color and flavor at the same time – the same as what we’ve always known about Tokay."
Talking about the Zinfandel in their 8.3 acre Marian's block, Bruce adds, "although it's the oldest of our old vine plantings, Marian's is slightly more productive (commonly yielding up to 4.5 tons per acre, whereas other old blocks in Mohr-Fry hover around 4 or less) and sets longer clusters and slightly larger berries – most likely because of a clonal variation. That's what makes Marian's special."
Jerry reveals, "we were once so close to pulling out the old vine Zinfandels along with the Tokays, but people like Tim Spencer stepped up to the plate to help us keep it going." Looking at the whirling, twirling, sinewy shapes of each of the vines in Marian's block – as endlessly, beautifully varied as cactus in an Arizona desert – we noticed how some of the vines were hollowed out at the ground, curved like giant, calloused, cupped hands, or even split apart like two walking feet. "That's because it is the outer part of the trunks, just inside the bark, that contain the connective tissue that feeds the plant," Bruce explains. "Some of these old guys have withered away in the middle, but you can see from the foliage and grapes that they are still going strong."
"Old vines like this don't exactly take care of themselves," Bruce reminds us. "We come to know each one individually, and each is pruned and thinned according to its needs; and water is manipulated (through underground drip irrigation) to keep the vines from growing out of control in the first place."
"We grow everything from A to Z," Jerry chortles – "from Alicante Bouschet to Zinfandel. Old vine Zinfandel may be comfortable as free standing, head trained vines, but Sangiovese – which we believe is Lodi's most underrated grape – gets the best sunlight exposure and canopy/fruit balance on quadrilateral trellises. The same for grapes like Malbec (which goes to Ironstone), and Pinot Noir (grown for De Loach Vineyards)."
The elder Fry continues, "in the old days (through the seventies) we picked most of the wine grapes at around 22°, 23° Brix (i.e. sugar reading). Today the wineries want them closer to 26°, 27°, or even 28° Brix – when flavors are the ripest. The vines have to work a lot harder when picked at higher sugars, so they demand a lot more care."
Seriously embracing their roles as caretakers of a property destined to be handed over to future generations, Jerry and Bruce Fry were among the first in Lodi to certify their entire vineyard to Lodi Rules for Sustainable Winegrowing. The practices they now implement, like cover cropping and elimination of pesticides, is environmentally sound, and better for the long term health of their soil, and the productivity of their vines.
Is there a Mohr-Fry wine label in the family's future? "I'll admit we've thought about that," says Jerry, "but it hasn't quite made my bucket list. But if we ever did, the first thing we'd need to do is establish name recognition. We've had a head start on that, of course, with all the single vineyard Mohr-Fry Ranches bottlings put out wineries like St. Amant, Valhalla, Harmony Wynelands, Chouinard, Joel Gott, and St. Jorge. But in the meantime, let's just say we pride ourselves on good quality wine grapes… that's just what we do."
Exhibit B: the wines themselves…
In each vintage St. Amant's Zinfandels stand out as an iconic growths, and the 2008 St. Amant Marion's Vineyard Old Vine Zinfandel ($24) is of that ilk: insanely dark, multi-faceted in the nose (blackberry veering into blueberry and Santa Rosa plum), chunky-jammy edged and, yes, Shaq-daddy big without being rough or ungainly. While a little rounder and less portly, 2008 St. Amant Mohr-Fry Ranches Old Vine Zinfandel ($18) flashes terroir related qualities of crushed autumn leaves and spearmint along with red plummy fruit, protruding over a belt of tannin.
St. Amant's winemaker/proprietor Stuart Spencer loves a good, drippy Philly cheesesteak sandwich with his Mohr-Fry Ranches, but believes that just about the most "perfect" wine match he has ever experienced with his Marian's cuvée was a "chocolate salad" devised by chef Tony Lawrence from Philadelphia: a mix of field greens, Gorgonzola chunks and dried cranberries and a saké vinegar based vinaigrette tinged with white chocolate and espresso. For other-worldly wines, you must think outside the box!
The smoky, crushed-leafy Mohr-Fry character in the 2007 Valhalla Mohr-Fry Ranches Old Vine Zinfandel ($18) comes encased in blackberry jam with whiffs of roasting coffee and cigar box; chubby and full on the palate without being heavy, the oak qualities and tannin rounded with a sense of moderation. For such a fruit-forward style of Zinfandel, rosemary grilled or roasted fruit marinated pork shoulder, with all the fat melted off, might be just what the doctor ordered; but really, any char scored grilled, marinated meat will do, bringing out the smoky qualities in the wine while letting its jammy fruitiness wash over the palate.
This spanking new Lodi winery owned by Vern and Jenise Vierra currently offers two outstanding, unusually and incredibly expressive Mohr-Fry sourced wines: a fragrant, compact, raspberry inundated 2008 St. Jorge Reserve-Mohr-Fry Ranches Old Vine Zinfandel ($35); and an outrageously big, thick, black-purplish, scrubby/green herb spiked elderberry liqueur-like 2008 St. Jorge Mohr-Fry Ranches Alicante Bouschet ($25). The latter is vinified from 89 year old vines, and must be tasted to be believed…
Talkin’ ’bout our generations!