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.
Beautiful thing – the refreshing purity of Onesta Wines
• Abiding respect for her grape sources – that is, she crafts wines so that you can taste the fruit and distinctive qualities of the vineyard, rather than a personal style or attempt to achieve a high "score."
• A strong feel for the lighter, crisper, sleeker, less oak influenced style to which more and more consumers are gravitating (notwithstanding wine critics who still give the highest scores to bigger, more intense and/or oakier wines).
Case in point, Johnson DeLeon's two latest releases: a mouth-wateringly nimble, lemon-meringue-airy and white peach/orange blossom/nectarine scented 2014 Onesta Clay Station Vineyard Lodi Grenache Blanc ($20); and a lush yet zesty, bone-dry, strawberry, earth and blood orange nuanced 2014 Onesta Bechthold Vineyard Lodi Rosé of Cinsaut ($22).
Both of these Onesta wines are finely etched by crisp acidity, medium alcohol (neither light nor heavy in body), and emphasis on fruit and natural earthiness (minerality in the Grenache Blanc and the faintest loaminess in the rosé of Cinsaut) rather than oak influence (although the rosé does see neutral barrel fermentation to round out partial skin phenolics, whereas the Grenache Blanc sees only stainless steel).
In a recent conversation, Johnson DeLeon shared a little of her thoughts on the wines. "You only one get chance each year to make wine," she tells us, "but no matter how long you do it, you can never really know everything about winemaking because Mother Nature always has a say, and each year she throws a curveball at you."
Johnson DeLeon has been crafting wine since graduating from U.C. Davis with a Viticulture and Enology degree in 2001 – most notably at the renowned Bonny Doon Vineyard – and besides running her one-woman operation (Onesta Wines, est. 2012), she holds down a day-job in Technical Sales with LAFFORT USA (supplying oenology tools to wineries).
Ms. Johnson DeLeon, in other words, is not above tweaking wines, particularly when it comes to yeast selection or acid adjustments. But for wines like the Grenache Blanc and Cinsault Rosé, she tells us, "You have to do very little. Bokisch (i.e. Lodi's Markus Bokisch, who farms Clay Station Vineyard) does such a great job – he is a meticulous grower, and his grapes are consistently of pristine quality. And Bechthold Vineyard is Bechthold Vineyard – my job as winemaker is to simply showcase the vineyard, and some vineyards showcase themselves."
Johnson DeLeon has less to say about Bechthold Vineyard because it is Lodi's oldest, most revered and probably best known vineyard: 25 acres of own-rooted Cinsaut vines originally planted by Joseph Spenker in 1886, owned by the same family ever since, and today, organically farmed by Phillips Farms (the agricultural arm of Lodi's Michael David Winery).
Therefore a wine like Onesta's meticulously crafted Cinsaut Rosé, made from 129-year-old vines, is nothing short of phenomenal – not just a steal at $22, but amazing at any price. We're not saying it's the finest pink wine made in the U.S.; but given the extenuating circumstances (re Bechthold Vineyard is California's "Vineyard of the Year"), and terroir driven purity of Johnson DeLeon's approach, it may very well be.
After three vintages, little Onesta Wines keeps chugging along; largely under the radar, driven primarily by the enthusiasm of those in the know. "It's taken longer than I thought to build brand awareness," admits Johnson DeLeon. "It takes over your life – I live, breathe, sleep everything Onesta – but it's definitely worth it. There have been so many rewarding moments; especially with the super-excited customers who love every wine. It's the positive feedback that keeps you going."
Ms. Johnson DeLeon was one of the featured speakers at the 2015 Women for Winesense "Women In Wine" conference this past March. Says Johnson DeLeon, "We all spoke about the challenges of being women in the wine industry, the difficulties of working with men, yet how all our role models were men because it used to be only men in the wine industry. Today, I can be a mentor for young women starting in the wine industry because there are a lot more of us."
Is the growing number of women like Johnson DeLeon also impacting the wine industry with something of a more giving style? It is debatable, whether hallmarks like subtlety and fruit/vineyard focus are gender influenced. What we do know is that these qualities distinguish Onesta Wines.
"It's always said that winemaking is an art form," says Johnson DeLeon. "I can't draw for beans, but I can blend wine and recognize individual notes in grapes like a musician can with music. And when you hit that perfect note and balance, it's a beautiful thing."