California Winery Advisor: What is special about making wine in Lodi?
Stuart Spencer of St. Amant Winery: Lodi is a great place to make wine. There is an incredible sense of community and common purpose striving to make great wine. You often feel that you are a part of something that is much greater than yourself and the wines that you are making. It’s inspiring and rewarding to be a part of transforming Lodi into one of the most dynamic wine regions in the world.
CWA: Can you tell us about your winemaking style?
Stuart: Simply put, we strive to make wines that taste good. A wine’s first and foremost responsibility is to be good – to deliver pleasure to the customer. To that end, I put a lot of effort into our vineyards. The vineyard fundamentally drives the direction the wine will go. Ultimately, after working with a vineyard year after year, you learn how it best expresses itself, and you play to its natural strengths. In the winery, we follow a fairly natural minimal intervention path – creating wines that reflect the vineyard sites. The net results are wines that fruit driven with good structure. We strive to strike a balance between the powerful fruit Lodi can deliver, but in a more elegant style.
CWA: I see your family had an interesting entry into the wine business. Can you tell us a little about how your family got started?
Stuart: My mom and dad started out as winegrape growers in 1972. They never intended to open a winery, but after getting “screwed” by several wineries, my dad figured that he was quite capable of going broke himself and that he didn’t need anyone else’s help, so he decided to open a winery. The final straw was in 1981 after selling all our grapes to a now defunct winery, he got word that they were going to file bankruptcy and not pay us for the grapes. He drove down to the winery, told a cellar hand to load two black totes of a young port wine made from our grapes into his truck, and headed out down the highway. At that point, we didn’t have a winery license, so he called a friend who did, brought the wine there, and pretended like we make it at that winery. He essentially bootlegged it out and started selling wine instead of grapes.
CWA: What lessons did you learn watching your family establish a wine business? What advice would you share with someone trying to grow a new winery?
Stuart: I have actually taught a class on the subject, and could go on for days, but will try to keep it simple. The wine business is a lifestyle – and it’s not all good food, wine, and fun. It’s a marathon, and you have to be committed to a very long-term vision and plan if you intend to develop a meaningful brand. And it’s fundamentally built on relationships – whether vineyard sources, sales people, or your customers they will make your business.
CWA: Lodi is known for old vine Zinfandel, but other varietals thrive there. What other varietals thrive in Lodi? Do you have any personal favorites?
Stuart: Lodi’s Mediterranean climate allows it to grow a tremendous diversity of varieties very well. Personally, we work with Barbera and Petite Sirah from Lodi that make absolutely delicious wines. (We also have a vineyard in the Sierra Foothills where we specialize in Portuguese and Spanish varieties and have since 1981).
CWA: Can you tell us about your current wine lineup? How did you decide on the varietals?
Stuart: We have two general areas of focus with our winemaking. From Lodi we specialize in Old Vine Zinfandel, Barbera, and Petite Sirah. Those varieties seemed to be a natural choice when we moved our winery to Lodi in the early 90’s. From our vineyard in Amador County, we specialize in Portuguese and Spanish varieties. In the 1970’s my dad got interested in Portuguese port wines and looked around at what was being done in California. For the most part, the wines were simple and one dimensional, and usually single varietals of Zinfandel or Cabernet. He went to UC Davis and ended up grafting over five traditional Portuguese varieties into our vineyard in 1980. They were very successful and made distinct wines. We’ve been working with them ever since, and have expanded our range of varieties.
CWA: Marketing is a big part of remaining successful. How do you get your brand in front of wine consumers? What do you think works the best?
Stuart: Our business has been built on referrals. Our customers bring their friends to our wines. We have always focused on making exceptional quality wines and offering them at a fair price. People come to our brand for the wine, not for the picnic grounds, concerts or any other tool used to market wineries. We focus on making high-quality authentic wines that connect with people. And that strategy has built a loyal long-term customer base.
CWA: Has social media changed how you market your wines? If yes, tell us how it has.
Stuart: Not really. Honestly, we could do a lot more in the social sphere, but we’ve been a bit slow to adopt. It can be a great communication tool to further deepen relationships with existing customers and develop new ones. I hope in the coming year to expand our social presence.
CWA: Where can consumers buy your wine?
Stuart: We are sold in about 20 states. A couple of our wines are sold at all Total Wine & More stores, plus we’re sold in Oregon, Nebraska, Illinois and a few other states. Plus we ship directly to most places and can purchase online at www.stamantwine.com.
CWA: Why should wine lovers visit your tasting room? What are some other great reasons to visit Lodi
CWA: St.Amant is located in an old industrial winery complex built shortly after prohibition. We don’t have picnic grounds, bocce ball courts, or other “wine country” amenities, we just have good wine. We’ve been told our winery is hard to find, but we kind of like it that way because it keeps the troublemakers away. Our winery is a destination for those seeking out unusual and delicious wines – from Touriga, Souzao, and Verdelho, to exquisite Old Vine Zins. It’ worth a visit.
And Lodi has much to offer wine enthusiasts, from the beautiful Mokelumne River to a quaint downtown with good food, and good places to stay. Lodi should be on every wine enthusiast's list.
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