Mettler Family Vineyards is probably the best wine producer many visitors to Lodi Wine Country have never heard of: because, simply, ever since they started with a bang – a 1999 Lodi Cabernet Sauvignon that made Wine Spectator magazine’s list of “Top 100 In the World” – they have never opened a tasting room.
Instead, this branch of Mettlers, who have been farming in Lodi since 1899, chose to concentrate on putting their horse before the cart, rather than the other way around: focusing on grape growing and winemaking first, and letting the quality of their work drive their sales in their markets (now in 35 states, from Hawai`i to New York).
But no more, according to Kim Mettler Eells, the winery’s General Manager. Some time towards the end of this summer the Mettlers will quietly open their brand new tasting room, located near the heart of their vineyard properties on the east side of the AVA, at 7889 East Harney Lane. There are already two magnificent, gray granite walls erected at the entrance with the Mettler name on them – perfectly framing the family’s strong sense of permanence in their typical low key way – but don’t go rushing in quite yet, because finishing touches are still being added as we speak (advisory: if you want to be among the first to know, strongly consider joining their Mettler Harvest Club through mettlerwine.com).
It’s taken a little longer than anticipated, according to Eells, “because we decided to offer something more on a grand scale – for us, and for the community. It’s been all about ‘right timing.’ The way we look at it, the family has been farming grapes for over 100 years, and our brand has been growing steadily, by 10%, 20% every year for the past 15 years. We go slow and steady because that’s the way we do things – very traditional. And like we do with our wines, we want to over-deliver when people finally see our tasting room.” Making decisions for the long term: oh, so very Lodi!
The Mettler Family tasting room is being erected on the thoroughly refurbished site of the wine estate formerly known as Vino Con Brio – 25 acres (including 18 planted acres) owned and operated by Dr. Mike and Renee Matson between the mid-nineties and June 2011, when they sold to the Mettlers. Says Jason Eells, Kim’s husband and the Mettlers’ Arbor Vineyards manager, “The Matsons were passionate about grapes and wines – they planted 12 varieties of grapes, and became known for their Pinotage and Late Harvest Viognier – but I think they felt it was time to retire.”
“The circumstances were perfect,” adds Ms. Eells, “because, two years ago, we were just beginning to think that it was time to build a tasting room. We were originally planning on it at our property at the corner of Victor and Alpine Road. But we’ve always owned the 80 acres of vineyards surrounding Vino Con Brio; so when it became available, it made so much sense to build our tasting room here.”
Ms. Eels also remembers “coming here as a kid, before it was Vino Con Brio, when it was owned by the Gilson family. The Gilsons had walnut and apple orchards, and the guesthouse (turned into a B&B by the Matsons, and now being redone as a hospitality and bridal suite by the Mettlers) was the Gilsons’ home. They also had a Lab Rescue for dogs, which is why they built the pond next to the house, for the dogs to swim and play. The tasting room was originally a horse barn, and there were geese and a peacock walking around.”
Visitors to the old Vino Con Brio property would not recognize the tasting room there today: the Mettlers have doubled its size, including a large patio area where an outdoor fireplace will be built, with offices for the winery and Arbor Vineyards operations tucked next to the entrance. Support pillars are wrapped in virile looking charcoal-gray quartzite stone cut from Idaho, which was also used in the magnificent fireplace inside, studded with a husky walnut slab of a mantle, transplanted from the old house on the Mettlers’ Alpine/Victor property.
The raw bones of the tasting room’s interior already exude meticulous handcrafting. Looking out into the vineyard through glassed walls, a curved, gray marbled-top tasting bar – one of the largest in Lodi (but not over-the-top “Napa”) – is handsomely lined with white oak staves, rounded to replicate wine barrels. Over the bar, shimmering overheads give off muted golden light, through custom blown glass shaped to discreetly suggest grape clusters. From the high ceiling hangs a spectacular, old, Moorish style chandelier, rescued and lovingly restored by the Mettlers from Sacramento’s historic Alhambra Theatre. “My parents (Larry and Charlene Mettler) had that chandelier stored away in our home for over 30 years – I guess they always knew they would find the right home for it.”
Across the way, the 4-bedroom hospitality center has also been redone from top to bottom. It will be used primarily as guest quarters and meeting center for visiting distributors, but will also be available for weddings: the lush green carpet beneath gigantic willow trees alongside the pond, on the other side from the tasting room, has long been a favorite spot for ceremonies.
Ms. Eells looks forward to expanding Mettler Harvest Club activities, and much more. She tells us, “Finally, we’ll be able to do the special events that winery club members look forward to, but more importantly, we’ll be able to reach out and become a stronger part of the community. Our hospitality center will allow us to do charity events. We’ve already scheduled our first one on June 28 – a fundraiser for Young Farmers & Ranchers.”
Mettler Family Vineyards will soon become a more visible part of Lodi Wine Country, but the foundation remains the same. The current patriarch, seventh generation farmer Larry Mettler, now manages over 800 acres of top-quality Lodi vineyards – 300 of those acres owned by the family, including 75 acres certified organic by CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers), the balance farmed primarily according to third party (Protected Harvest) certified Lodi Rules for Sustainable Winegrowing.
Larry’s winemaker/son, Adam Mettler – who has a day-job as G.M./winemaker at Michael David Winery – skims off maybe 6%, 7% of the very best fruit grown by the family’s Arbor Vineyards each year to craft Mettler Family’s acclaimed wines, highlighted by arguably the finest, if not most lavishly layered, Cabernet Sauvignon grown each year in Lodi.
Having complete control of their own grapes has allowed the Mettlers to grow their yearly production in perfect synch with their markets – from about 10,000 cases two years ago to just over 13,000 cases today. The new tasting room brings still another dimension, especially with the addition of smaller production, tasting-room-sales-only varietals produced from grapes originally planted at the tasting room site by Vino Con Brio.
All the Mettler wines are still being made at a winery in Mendocino County; but permits to build a winemaking facility elsewhere on the Harney Lane property have already been secured. “But that will be down the road,” says Mr. Eells – “there’s no rush at the moment.”
Ah, that Mettler mantra – a commitment to “grand,” but in their own steady, slowhand way. Something also tasted, to firmly established expectation, in the glass. Hence, our tasting notes on the new estate bottlings, as well as the current vintages of Mettler wines sold across the country:
2012 Mettler Family, Salice Bianco Lodi Muscat Canelli ($18) – The Salice Bianco (“white willow”) is one of the new estate grown wines that will be sold only at the tasting room (just 80 cases produced). It has a flowery perfume, redolent of orange blossoms, with feathery light (just 10% alcohol), medium sweet, exuberantly soft and fruity flavors.
2011 Mettler Family, Lodi Chardonnay ($22) – Grapes going into the Mettlers’ first ever Chardonnay were sourced from family plantings on nearby Alpine Rd. (between Victor and Kettleman). While crafted in the ever-popular “buttery” smooth style, there is a fresh citrus quality entwined with its creamy, toasty aroma and finely textured, medium-full bodied feel. Only 150 cases produced; tasting room only sales.
2011 Mettler Family, Lodi Pinotage ($24) – The Pinotage grape – a Vitis vinifera crossing (Pinot Noir x Cinsaut) originating in South Africa in 1925 – was one of Vino Con Brio’s specialties, and one of the handful produced in the U.S. (Fort Ross does an extremely rare one in Sonoma Coast, and there is a Grayhaven in Virginia that has its own following). The reason the grape been slow to catch on outside South Africa is because the red wines it produces are, to put it mildly, an acquired taste (experts have related its varietal character to “rusty nails”). But that’s South Africa. All we know is that Mettler’s Lodi grown Pinotage is amazingly bright and brambly, with aromatic suggestions of blueberry and baking marionberry pie, and just a faint note of dusty leather, turned more into a bacon-ish nuance in combination with the moderate toasted oakiness. The feel is fairly full yet rounded with moderate tannin; the fruit focused flavors filling things out nicely. Just one more wine making Lodi special! Only 250 cases produced; tasting room only.
2010 Mettler Family, Epicenter Lodi Old Vine Zinfandel ($22) – Vintage after vintage, the Mettlers grow a richly textured style of Zinfandel, brimming with brambly, perfumed raspberry jam-like aromas tinged with smoky, cinnamon-ish spice. Cedary oak qualities pop into the palate, which has a velvety feel, almost chocolaty rich and seamless; filling out the wine’s full body (15.5% alcohol) and keeping it from coming across as over-the-top.
2010 Mettler Family, Lodi Petite Sirah ($24) – “Petite Sirah can be a problem child,” Ms. Eells tells us – “we don’t get the perfect grapes every year.” 2010, however, was definitely one of those vintages where stars were aligned for Lodi’s Petite Sirah growers, and this bottling contains everything a “P.S.” lover looks for: deep purplish color, a thick muscled body, and gobs of peppery spiced blueberry fruit qualities, encased in smoky oak as well as surprisingly smooth, round, sculpted sensations. Enjoy!
2010 Mettler Family, Lodi Cabernet Sauvignon ($25) – This varietal continues to anchor Mettler Family’s growing portfolio – yearly production currently tops 8,000 cases – and in the moderated temperatures and trouble-free conditions of 2010 they were able to craft a Cabernet Sauvignon as good as any they’ve ever produced. The nose is rich, plummy, and complex with cedar box and tobacco notes; and on the palate, the sensations are muscular, gripping, yet round and velvety smooth at the same time. In Mettler fashion, blended with Petite Sirah (13%), plus a touch of Petit Verdot (1%). Starts a craving for char-grilled steak – and as such, an ideal “summer red.”