Letters from Lodi

An insightful and objective look at viticulture and winemaking from the Lodi
Appellation and the growers and vintners behind these crafts. Told from the
perspective of multi-award winning wine journalist, Randy Caparoso.

Randy Caparoso
November 21, 2023 | Randy Caparoso

Story of an appellation—Part 9, the modern era, when Lodi families of German lineage took control

1921 photograph of the Mettler family on the site of HGM Ranch (east side of Mokelumne River-Lodi): Henry George Mettler in front, with a young Carl Mettler (right), father of Mettler Family Vineyards' present-day patriarch Larry Mettler. Courtesy photo.

Continued from Story of an appellation—Part 8, Lodi's shift to premium grapes and first wave of independent wineries

Klinker Brick Winery

The family behind Klinker Brick Winery is a quintessential Lodi story. Other than Michael David Winery, no other winery in Lodi has done more to familiarize the average American consumer with Lodi appellation wines than Klinker Brick, founded in 2000 by fifth-generation grape growers Steve and Lori Felten 

According to Mr. Felton, started up a winery was not really a choice thing. For over 100 years, wineries controlled almost everything—grape prices, the choice of varieties to plant, even how to farm and pick grapes. In a region where farmers still dominate the entire agricultural industry—including wine grapes—this was never a tolerable situation.

1946 photograph of Eric Woock (1897-1972), innovative Lodi farmer and grandfather of Klinker Brick Winery owner/grower Steve Felten. Courtesy photo.

For nearly a century Lodi growers counteracted these circumstances by operating their own wineries, borrowing the old European concept of grower-owned cooperative wineries. But by the 1980s, the market demand for premium quality wines rendered the co-op business plan unteneble. The wineries succeeding in the modern era were those focused on a branding that is more on-point and flexible, capable of adjusting to inevitable market trends—something easier to do with single ownerships, rather than the 25 to 50 owners typifying co-op entities.

Yet towards the end of the last millennium, independent Lodi growers still found themselves behind the eight-ball. One year a winery might contract for 50 to 200 tons; the next year they might take none. It was time, says Felten, to take "destiny into our own hands"—by controlling end-products, you can better manage your farming. 

Nick Felten Sr. (center)—representing the Luxemburg side of Klinker Brick Winery owner Steve Felten's family—with white wine grape harvest in Luxemburg; and a bottle of Felten family Pinot Blanc grown in Luxemburg. Courtesy photos.

It was a long time—over 100 years—coming. According to Klinker Brick VP Farrah Felten Jolley, representing the family's sixth generation, "three out of four of my great grandparents were born in the Dakotas"—which made them of German Russian stock (for the full story, see our previous post on The indelible impact of Lodi's German community).

Continues Felten Jolley:

My relatives on my mom's side, mostly in the Mettler family, first came to Lodi in the late 1890s. They got letters from their relatives that were already here in Lodi saying the farming was better than in the Dakotas! I'm a sixth generation Lodiian on this side. Although they came a little later, the Feltens and Woocks on my dad's side might be even more interesting.

Eric Woock's Champion Vine Clipper, a machine of his own invention. Courtesy photo.

Steve Felten elaborates:

My grandfather Eric Woock [1897-1972] wore many hats. He was a gold miner, grain farmer, vineyardist and inventor. In fact, he invented the first-ever vine trimmers and was the first person in Lodi to use aluminum overhead sprinklers for irrigation. The original ranch and vineyard is where the new Vaz Brothers warehouse [east side of Lodi on S. Guild Avenue] is now.

The Woock vineyard consisted mostly of Tokays but also had Zinfandel and Alicante Bouschet. Wanda Woock [of Lodi's Spenker family] is my grandma's cousin. We [i.e., Lodi's farming families] are all related!

The Felten family's Pure Sausage & Meat Company in Lodi. Courtesy photo.

The Feltens represent the non-German Russian side of Steve Felten. His great grandfather arrived in 1927 from Luxemburg and was part of a long line of vintners (the family wines sold under the Wintrange Felsberg label). Once in Lodi, the Felten family practically invented the tradition of sausage making for which the region is known today—for foodies, of even more cultural significance than grapes! According to Steve, the owners of Lockeford Sausage as well as Lakewood Meats & Sausages—now renowned in and outside of Lodi—both worked under his grandfather at his company, before starting their own shops. 

Topaz Café—changed to Felten's Topaz Café in 1953—on Lodi's Cherokee Avenue. Courtesy photo.

Then there is the restaurant side: "During the 1950s," adds Steve, "the Feltens opened Topaz Restaurant [later changed to Felten's Topaz] on Lodi's Cherokee Avenue."

Making the transition from farmers to winemakers in the early 2000s, within twenty years the Felten family's brand found success in every market of the United States. The advantage that Klinker Brick has over the vast majority of California wineries is that it controls its own grapes through either ownership or vineyard management. They can also pick and choose from vineyards owned by other growers, depending upon the evolving needs of their product line. Grapes for white wines and rosés, for instance, are in far more demand than just ten years ago. In other words, Klinker Brick maintains a position that makes them flexible and on-point.

The Feltens of Klinker Brick Winery today: Lori, Farrah [Jolley-Felten) and Steve.

In respect to product control, Barry Gnekow, the vaunted consulting winemaker who also helped launch Michael David Winery's success, continues to work hand in hand with Klinker Brick winemaker Joseph Smith to drive a diverse portfolio of increasingly premium quality levels. 

Having a multi-generational lineage has played a huge part in Klinker Brick's success. But it is that same drive and inventive inclination of those previous generations—epitomized by forebears such as the Woocks and Feltens—that have kept them in good stead in the twenty-first century.

Mettler Family Vineyards' HGM Ranch today, the core of the brand's "Epicenter" Zinfandel, now also going into a vineyard-designate bottling.

Mettler Family Vineyards

The Mettler family of Mettler Family Vineyards, founded in 1998, epitomizes the huge influence of farmers of German Russian descent who arrived in the Lodi area towards the end of the 1890s. Larry Mettler took over the family's farming business in 1970 from his father Carl, who was a sixth-generation farmer. 

Carl's grandfather, George Mettler, was one of five brothers who immigrated from Germany to South Dakota in the mid-1800s and soon trickled down to San Joaquin County; hence the multiplicity of close-to-distantly related Mettlers living alongside each other in the Lodi area. There is an old saying pertaining to east Lodiians: "Knock on any door and most likely a close relative will answer."

Larry Mettler in Mettler Family Vineyards Aglianico block.

The decision to establish a brand and winery under the family name was, indeed, a “family decision,” says Larry's winemaker/son, Adam Mettler.  According to Adam, it was actually his mother, Charlene Mettler, who pushed and prodded the family to come together and “take it to the next level." Adam’s older sister, Kim Mettler-Eells, took on marketing duties and later as GM, younger sister Kelli Mettler Costamagna manages sales, and Kim’s husband Jason Eells serves as vineyard manager.

Indicative of the talent that runs through Mettler veins, in 2018 Adam Mettler was named Wine Enthusiast Magazine's "Winemaker of the Year"—for the entire world! 

Mettler Family Vineyards GM Kim Mettler Eells.

Because Carl and Larry had been working for years with multiple clones of Cabernet Sauvignon—including research projects with UC Davis—early on the decision was made to specialize in that grape. “Cabernet Sauvignon seemed to us to be the path of least resistance,” says Larry. “It gave us a chance to set ourselves apart from other Lodi producers coming up at the time.”

While doing so, the Mettlers established the fact that Cabernet Sauvignon can indeed flourish in Lodi's Mediterranean climate and sandy soils, contrary to popular opinion at the time. The very first vintage of Mettler Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, a 1999, was ranked among Wine Spectator’s “Top 100 Cabernet Sauvignons in the World,” and subsequent vintages have duplicated or exceeded that quality level.

Mettler Family Vineyards home estate.

Mettler Family Vineyards, and its vineyard management arm Arbor Vineyards, are also staunch supporters of LODI RULES for Sustainable Winegrowing. To meet the demand of many modern day wineries, some of their vineyards are also certified organic by California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), producing wines that are second to none.

Adam Mettler, Mettler Family Vineyards' award-winning winemaker.

Harney Lane Winery

Still another branch of the Mettler family—George and Kathy Mettler, along with their daughter Jorja, married to grower/co-owner Kyle Lerner—founded Harney Lane Winery in 2006, on a vineyard property farmed by their family since 1907. Since then, Harney Lane Winery has emerged as a local leader in terroir-driven, vineyard-designate-style Zinfandel and Chardonnay, while also handcrafting impeccable estate-grown Albariño, Petite Sirah, and Tempranillo

Harney Lane Winery's Jorja and Kyle Lerner.

Jorja Lerner’s great great grandfather was Frederick Schnaidt, who originally purchased the property on the east side of Lodi in 1900, after arriving from Menno, South Dakota. Frederick and his son, Henry Schnaidt, planted their first wine grapes in 1906. For decades, Henry and Elizabeth Schnaidt ran farming and grape packing operations; cultivating lots of Zinfandel as well as Flame Tokay. In a 2012 interview, George Mettler told us:

The Schnaidt name did not survive in our family because Grandpa Henry and his wife Elizabeth had two daughters, but no sons. It’s a wonder that my hands have five fingers and my feet five toes, because in the old days it wasn’t uncommon to have three marriages within two families, one generation after another. Grandma Schnaidt was a Mettler, and my mother was a Schneidt who married a Mettler—and that was probably just the start of the mix-up.

Harney Lane home vineyard—recently renamed Henry Ranch (reflected on latest bottlings)—founded by the Schnaidt family in 1900.

Like their close cousins right down the road at Mettler Family Vineyards—George Mettler's other grandfather is Henry George Mettler (there were Henrys on both sides)—the Harney Lane clan is a champion of LODI RULES for Sustainable Winegrowing. The family remains a vineyard management company (DBA, Mettler & Son) growing grapes for other wineries, although they have reduced these operations considerably in favor of focusing on their own production and sales. In fact, much of the edge that this branch of the Mettlers retains in respect to sheer quality of product is due to the fact that they farm their own vineyards, and can select the cream of their own crops to go into the Harney Lane label. 

Harney Lane Winery founder George Mettler (1943-2013) with his cork tree planted on the family estate where he lived his entire life.

Everything done at Harney Lane Winery—from their work with their former consulting winemaker Chad Joseph to the carefully controlled growth of their production facility and vineyards—has been quality focused. Their efforts towards marketing, branding and wine club management are more than equal to the task. Hence, their enormous contribution to Lodi's growing reputation for wines of both regional distinction and industry leading quality.

Kyle Lerner with Harney Lane's 2023 estate grown Primitivo.



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